Consumer needs represent the factors that drive people to make purchasing decisions. Understanding and identifying customer needs will allow you to provide a product or service that people will actually find useful. Knowing the consumer needs that your product or service fulfills also helps you create a marketing plan to describe in no uncertain terms why consumers need to buy what you sell.
Consumer needs start with a physical or emotional need, desire, want or whim, which can be evaluated according to different theories including Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Once a customer actively begins the research process, other types of customer needs come to light, and these will be of particular importance for marketing campaigns.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Consumer needs can pertain to physiological survival and feelings of safety, belonging, esteem and self-actualization. Consumers also need affordability, functionality, convenience, accurate information, transparency, easy communication and other factors when looking for a product or service.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who proposed a theory of needs, stating that some human needs are more important and more common than others. These needs can be laid out in a pyramid, with the most basic needs representing the base of the pyramid: physiological, safety, belonging, esteem and self-actualization.
Physiological Needs According to Maslow
The elements necessary for survival create the broad base of Maslow's pyramid. These needs include food, water, rest and warmth. Many products and services exist to meet these physiological needs, and because everyone needs them on a daily basis, there's high competition in this arena. For example, think about all the different ways you can get lunch today: farmers' market, grocery store, fast food, restaurant, delivery, etc.
The Need to Feel Safe
Once we have our most basic survival needs met, we aim to keep ourselves, our belongings and our circumstances safe so our survival cannot be threatened. We aim to not only have a home but to feel safe and secure inside it.
Security systems and door locks are examples of physical items we need to feel safe, but we also feel safe knowing that competent law enforcement exists, that our lives are financially stable, that our relationships are strong and that we have nothing to fear.
The Need to Belong
Next on Maslow's hierarchy is the need to belong and to feel loved. Everyone needs this fundamental psychological need met from the moment of birth. It overlaps somewhat with the need to feel safe.
In order to enjoy mental and emotional health, we need to feel like we belong to various groups: family, friends, co-workers, etc. Each of these makes us feel valued and gives us an opportunity to share affection. Products and services that promote social activities feed into this need.
The Need for Self-Esteem and Respect
Maslow indicated that two categories of esteem needs exist: self-esteem and feeling respected by others. Once we're in our social groups, the way other people treat and value us, especially in childhood, helps us to grow and develop our own self-respect.
Marketing tactics can absolutely appeal to our need for esteem from others. Just think about the "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality and how it affects the way we purchase vehicles, care for our lawns or decorate our homes, whether we're aware of it or not. The beauty and wellness industries appeal to our desire to build self-esteem by suggesting we'll feel more confident and happy when we buy a product or service.
The Top of the Pyramid: Self-Actualization
When all of our other needs are met, we have an innate need for personal growth and achievement. We want to be the best we can be, and this motivates us to seek educational opportunities, to seek physical and mental wellness for the sake of being as fit as possible, etc.
This need exists in all of us even when our other needs are not perfectly met, but we're more likely to act on self-actualization when they are. Therefore, this top level of the hierarchy of needs has the relatively smallest potential customer base.
Where does your product or service fall on Maslow's hierarchy of needs? Understanding exactly what you're fulfilling will help you in understanding customer needs and expectations and in targeting the right people.
Additional Types of Customer Needs
Now that you have an idea of the intrinsic needs you fulfill, it's time to consider the conversion funnel. You know your target audience consists of people looking to satisfy a particular need from Maslow's hierarchy, but they have additional needs to consider when making a choice between you or your competitors.
To further your understanding of customer needs and expectations, start by asking yourself this question: Do you provide a product or a service? The consumer needs differ slightly for both. In short, customers analyze services and products in slightly different ways, but there can be some overlap. For example, needing an affordable price applies to both products and services.
The following consumer needs outline the traits that customers use to evaluate products and services regardless of where their needs fall on Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
Examples of Consumer Product Needs
Consumers need their products to have certain characteristics or to check certain boxes. Of course, consumers don't necessarily think about their purchasing habits using the following terms. It's more of a subconscious process, but as a marketer, it's your job to fully understand the consumer's purchasing decisions.
To start, the main things consumers look for when shopping for products are affordability, functionality and efficiency, convenience and compatibility. You might be able to think of more to add to this list.
Needing Affordable Products
First and foremost, if consumers cannot afford a product, they move on to a competitor's product or put the entire buying process on hold until they can save up the funds. They need a product within their price range. You can gain a competitive advantage if you can offer affordability.
Needing Functional and Efficient Products
The product has to not only have the function that the consumer needs, but it also needs to perform efficiently. If your product can't promise to save the consumer some time, they'll move on to a less complicated or more efficient product.
Needing Convenient Ways to Purchase
The product has to be convenient to obtain and to use. If your product isn't readily available in big-box stores, consumers may be more likely to purchase your competitor's products just because they can get them the same day versus needing to order them online. Also, the easier it is to use the product, the better. Think about how many steps it takes to assemble it, program it, turn it on, etc.
Needing Compatible Products
The product has to work with other products the consumer owns. An easy example involves technology – you can't charge a MacBook with the same cord you use to charge an HP laptop, for example.
Think beyond technology too. Do you sell a product that has a popular aesthetic appeal that will prove to be compatible with other home decor? For example, don't try to sell bright-blue microwaves when stainless-steel appliances are all the rage.
Examples of Customer Service Needs
Consumer service needs apply to businesses that sell products too. You need to offer good customer service to troubleshoot product malfunctions, to handle shipping problems and returns, etc. Companies that only offer services still have competitors in their niche, and in order to stand out from the crowd, you need to know how potential customers compare providers before reaching out.
Consumers look for and need the following from service providers: accurate information, empathy and fairness, transparency and accessible communication.
Accurate Information About the Service
When they start researching your service or reach out to your company, consumers need information. Beyond that basic need for information, they specifically want accurate and precise information.
Build trust with consumers by readily supplying information that is specific and verifiable. If consumers believe they have been misled at any point in the buying process, they will not give you repeat business or recommend you to others.
Empathy and Fairness in Communication
Consumers want to know that they will be treated well by your staff and service providers. They need empathy when speaking to customer service representatives. Consumers also expect to be treated fairly and in accordance with your policies.
Transparency in All Proceedings
Customers love to receive itemized estimates for services in order to know exactly for what they're paying. Surprises are not welcome, especially surprise fees. Being transparent about your policies, procedures, services and fees also helps consumers make informed decisions and establishes a sense of trust.
Maintain transparency with open communication and reports. If you feel like you need to hide what you're doing behind the scenes, re-evaluate your policies and procedures as soon as possible because nothing stays hidden forever.
Accessible Communication With Your Company
Consumers need and expect to be able to reach a company representative easily, especially during business hours. Technology changes how consumers communicate with companies, and they expect to be able to reach representatives through new and popular channels.
For example, you'll lose out on a lot of potential customers if you only accept phone calls as a form of communication. Facebook messenger is just as popular as email, and some companies even accept text messages these days. For companies that operate internationally, a WhatsApp number is popular. Don't forget about customer service chats that take place on the website itself.
Next Steps: Customer Analysis
Now you have an idea of the needs that not only drive consumers to seek your product or service but also factor into their decision to purchase from you instead of a competitor. It's time to sit down with your marketing team to perform a comprehensive customer analysis because these factors are not the be all and end all of consumer needs. What needs are specific to your industry? What causes your customers to choose you?
These factors represent your unique selling proposition. A SWOT analysis can help you dig deeper into what your company does well and how it can improve. Don't forget to perform a customer analysis and create buyer personas. Where do your customers fall on Maslow's hierarchy of needs? How does this affect your conversion funnel? What kind of tone should your marketing copy have in order to reach the target audience?
Final Tips to Keep in Mind
Keeping a consumer-centric focus is key to success. To be more specific, it's the consumer's needs that you have to think about first and foremost. Always keep the consumer's needs in mind at each stage of the development process and at each step of the conversion funnel. Other factors, like demographics and culture, come into play after consumer needs and never before.
It's best to understand consumer needs before you even begin to develop a product or service. That way you can ensure that you truly provide something to consumers that fills a gap in their life. Back pedaling to match a need with an existing product can be a little dangerous because it suggests that there may not be a large customer base for the product. However, it's better to understand consumer needs a little late in the process than never at all.
Cathy Habas specializes in marketing, customer experiences, and behind-the-scenes management. Cathy has contributed to sites like Business and Finance, Business 2 Community, and Inside Small Business. She served as the managing editor for a small content marketing agency before continuing with her writing career.