This quote is still alive and well, Henry Ford allegedly said:
If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
As a member researcher I see some validity to this statement. Research, particularly qualitative research is very good at naming member problems but members themselves are often hard pressed to articulate the right solution. If they had the solution their problem would not be a problem any more.
The problem with this quote is too often it is used as proof of why member research, of why asking, is the wrong tactic to use for our associations. Because members can’t say what they want the only way for us to determine what they need is to observe them. With this I wholeheartedly disagree. Members are very adept at articulating their problem and it is up to us to come up with the right solution.
While observation as a market research tactic is working exceptionally well for retailers and for consumer products companies we association executives, on the other hand, don’t often see our members in their natural work habitat doing their everyday duties. We just don’t have the same access. So most of the conversation turns to observing our members through the lens of our data and surveys. Data and surveys are both limited. They give us a picture of what has happened in the past and with the rapid evolution of trends, technology and preference this kind of data may lead us down the wrong path.
We have got to ask our members. Not ask them to come up with a solution but instead ask them about their biggest professional challenges.
When we don’t ask and just rely on observing members’ behavior we can make the wrong decisions. We may see members pulling back and not purchasing. What if this was actually a self-fulfilling prophecy not an environmental change? Think about the restaurant owner that assumes that his genre of restaurant is no longer popular when in fact seats would be filled if he just cleaned the bathroom more often.
Wondering how to serve members better? Let’s ask them what they are struggling with. They will tell us.