What’s your real problem? Why understanding your customers is crucial for business growth

In one of my favourite episodes of the TV series Kitchen Nightmares, famous Scottish chef Gordon Ramsay heads to Scottsdale Arizona, USA, to Amy’s Baking Company, run by husband and wife team Sammy and Amy.

On the surface, the kitchen looks good. The cakes on display are beautifully presented and Ramsay is greeted by friendly restaurateurs. He declares the kitchen as ‘clean as a doctor’s surgery’, tastes the dessert and remarks, ‘If all your food is as good as this, there is something not quite right here.’

When queried about why her company needs help, Amy tells Ramsay, ‘There are lots of online bullies and haters that come here and attack us … They say things that aren’t true.’

If you took all of this information so far on face value, you would assume the restaurant had an issue with its customers. The problem you might therefore try to solve is: How do we transform our customers’ opinions of us? Yet, Ramsay’s actual experience, when he sits down to eat a meal, uncovers something else entirely.

There are multiple problems that emerge: the culture, customer service, food quality, food service design and timely delivery of dishes. These have nothing to do with customer behaviour – in fact, you really couldn’t blame them for their bad reviews given none of their needs were being met. This is a classic example of how in business we launch into solving problem X, without first slowing down, and observing if the problem is really Y.

Look before you leap

In a 2017 Harvard Business Review article ‘Are You Solving The Right Problems?’ a survey of 106 C-suite executives across 17 countries, uncovered that 85% strongly agreed or agreed that their organisations were bad at problem diagnosis. Plus 87% strongly agreed or agreed that this flaw carried significant costs.

Author Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg remarked, ‘The pattern is clear: spurred by a penchant for action, managers tend to switch quickly into solution mode without checking whether they really understand the problem.’

The challenge of every business is the incredible pressure placed on short-term results, with constant deadlines looming. We are always chasing outcomes, which creates a culture of doing. So, when a business problem arises we quickly jump to solution finding and implementation.

When things aren’t going well in our business, our instinct is to ‘fix’ whatever we perceive to be the problem, as quickly as possible. We jump ahead and try to solve what might not be a problem in the first place. This results in fast, cheap solutions that do not last long and do not have much impact for your customers.

If we don’t take the time, like Ramsay, to dig deep, to observe and figure out what is really going on, then we throw time, money and resources into something that will fail to have any impact on our business at all – except wasted time, money and resources.

Get curious

In today’s business world, you need to be able to walk in the shoes of your customer. To find clues and collect artefacts that build a whole picture of your customers’ experiences.

That means sitting with them in their lounge room, shopping where they shop, drinking where they drink or eating where they eat.  You must spend time discovering their hopes, fears and values, and viewing the world through their eyes. Noticing what delights them and observing their irritations, frustrations and pain points.

You need to curiouslyobserve what people say, and what they do, and seek to understand deeply what matters to them. This is the best starting point to finding the right problems to solve.  Curiosity is the tool we use to find our most valuable problems; to turn our insights into opportunities. You need to become curiousabout identifying what problems you need to solve. You need to be curiousabout the opportunities that become possible when you are open to change.

Having this deep understanding of your customer problems is essential to inspiring growth.  When you understand your realcustomer problems (not the perceived ones) then you start to solve their deepest problems and you start to stimulate breakthrough innovation, to implement initiatives that will truly benefit (not drain) your bottom line.


Evette Cordy is curious – and she’s passionate about making you curious, too. As an innovation expert, registered psychologist, chief investigator and co-founder at Agents of Spring, she identifies opportunities and facilitates new ways of thinking in organisations. Evette is also author of the book Cultivating Curiosity: How to unearth your most valuable problem to inspire growth. Curious to find out more? Head to www.agentsofspring.com


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