How to elicit prospective customers’ latent needs

When prospective customers first hear your new product idea they feel some benefits they want are missing. At this point don’t try to “sell” what you see as the potential of the product. Stop and employ the craft of elicitation. Use this non-invasive tool, “a conversation with an agenda,”1 to draw forth previously unarticulated needs.

Meeting latent needs gives you a foothold above your competitors

A seasoned elicitor surfaces latent needs. The customer hadn’t put these needs into words before your concept description triggered the thought. Digging deep, the elicitor understands what benefit the customer gains if adjusting your product concept solves the customer’s unmet needs. Digging deeper, leads to understanding the value the customer places on your solution, a sturdy lever for setting pricing.

Employing the craft of elicitation to surface latent needs

How elicitation fits into the spectrum of primary market research tools.

  • Surveying — surveyor asks closed-ended questions that can be answered in a few words.
  • Interviewing —interviewer clearly keeps control of the interview.
  • Elicitation — elicitor controls the conversation without revealing the agenda to the respondent.
  • Conversation — two people talk and exchange information freely and unplanned.

I’ve found it’s productive to give control over to the respondent early in an elicitation phone conversation. After a respondent picks up the phone I introduce myself and ask, “Is this a convenient time to talk?” This simple and powerful query quickly sets up rapport and, surprisingly, the respondent soon gives back control.

I then ask a few more questions, most are open-ended in nature. They are designed to put the respondent into the Professor role. Insights on the respondent’s needs begin to flow. Baffling, as it may seem, asking too many questions will cut off the flow. Questions draw attention to the information you want, they raise flags, and move the conversation away from your agenda. If I remain in the Intelligent Pupil role and steer the conversation through simple “Tell me more” or “I don’t understand” comments, unique insight continues to flow.

Putting it together

After speaking to twenty respondents for 15 minutes or more each, I analyze the isolated bits and pieces of information gathered on needs the new product idea might meet. A pattern begins to emerge where a solving a problem related to a previously unarticulated need leads to a valid business opportunity. An additional twenty conversations with new respondents verify and flesh out the pattern. The result is a superior product concept and identification of profitable prospective customers who will buy the new product in preference to competitive offerings.

1. (2010) Frank Stopa The Human Skills: Elicitation & Interviewing 2nd Edition