Many business owners we meet are obsessed with the products they produce or the services they deliver. It is almost as though their awesome whatever-it-is is their gift to the world. They are passionate about it. They have slept, eaten, and breathed it and worked to refine it. They often have made personal sacrifices in order to do it. But sometimes nobody – or not enough people – is buying what they have to sell. Whether or not you are in the same position that they are in at this moment, the sustainability of your business relies upon the answer to this question: “What problem does your business solve?” Follow that with, “How do you know the answer?”

As your business grows, you might not think survival is a looming issue – instead your competitive positioning might be in the foreground for you. When you’re planning and you try to stack your business up against your competition a similar question to the one above should enter in: “Who are my core customers, and what are they looking for?” It’s not about your criteria, it’s about the customer’s criteria. You might be terrific at offering X, but if your customers think Q is more important, your greatness at X is no competitive advantage.

The question that often goes begging in businesses is : “When have you listened to customers lately?” If you are not in a routine of reaching out to listen to customers, surveying them, taking a few to lunch, holding focus groups, etc., you don’t really know what they want. You’re in product-centered mode, or you think you know what the customer wants now and tomorrow. That’s risky. There are many cautionary tales if you are willing to recall them. The iconic example is the best buggy whip manufacturer. In an emerging era of automobiles, the market for buggy whips tanked. And it no longer mattered how fabulous that buggy whip was. Customers wanted to ride in cars, not horse-drawn vehicles.

This voice of the customer needs to come up in discussions about quality, or about packaging, even new product development. If a customer’s quality criteria are not exacting as yours are, your quality measures simply add cost, not value to the customer. If you sell your product only in packs of one dozen pieces, where is a customer going to go if they only need one? What if they want your product in some color other than black? What if today’s invention means they won’t even need your current product offering tomorrow?

It is not only for your marketing department to determine and then communicate to your market the benefits of your products and services. At the center of your strategy you need to know FROM YOUR CUSTOMERS what problems your products solve, and what customers want from them. Then you can use the information to inform your new product development, your manufacturing process, packaging, delivery – even billing and payment systems.