On What The Customer Wants

The premier event for luxury agents and brokers
Luxury Connect | Oct. 16-18 | Beverly Hills

Do they know, or should we show them?


Mad Men: The Carousel scene from dts on Vimeo.

Note: This is part two, a deeper exploration of my recent post on Discovery

Very often in real estate we get caught up in talking about the customer. Who they are, what they need, and perhaps most importantly, what they want.

While this is different for every real estate professional based on their own individual markets, approach, experience and existing customer base, there are certain aspects of catering to customer needs that are highly effective, but many unexplored and often underused ones that are not.

The idea that the customer doesn’t always know what they want has been explored in great depth elsewhere online, but let’s explore some examples of what that really means in real estate.

As Tish Shute, speaking as part of the ‘Augmented Reality’ panel at the recent Real Estate Connect conference in San Francisco says of the pre-iPad era, ‘…the customer doesn’t really know they want an iPad, but they do know that they want a transformative, magical experience’.

Read that last sentence back again to yourself. How much of this do we actually see in the real estate industry?

While it’s certainly true that our industry is undergoing unprecedented levels of dramatic technological transformation, innovation and digital adoption, much of it follows a misguided premise of ‘using the data to give the customer what they want’. We discuss at length the needs to tighten up data, analyze it and build those insights back into the online customer experience. That, up to now, has been a highly effective way of building digital products.

But I argue that it doesn’t give the customer what they want. It simply caters to their current needs, and enhances their experience based on what they’re already doing today. While this provides a fantastic framework for gradual, incremental change, it has the unfortunate side effect of creating a herd-like mentality and a homogenization of brands, user experiences and ways in which people perceive what real estate professionals do online. It makes everyone the same.

For example, think of how people search for homes online. In any large portal, brokerage site, or third-party listings aggregation service, the experience is usually a consistent presentation of checkboxes, dropdowns, other tertiary options and a large ‘GO’ button.

This is the Google model of being able to find things online, one which values volume of ranked search as the most effective way of being able to find what you want. It is not unusual to have tens of thousands of results returned to you in these portals under the guise of ‘service and quality of experience’, and the user is expected to either filter heavily post-search, or be so specific in their initial search in a vain attempt to get a manageable amount of things to consider. Many have countered this with the idea of curation, but I think it’s a lot more than that.

My proposal is that this isn’t how people search for homes, and that as a result, this isn’t what the customer wants. Let’s go beyond listening.

Think about how you find new things to do. Very often you can’t recall how you made those decisions. Why you tried that new pizza place in town, or why you decided to watch one movie over another. This is particularly acute when you travel, as being in unfamiliar surroundings forces that aspect of exploration and discovery upon you, in a very direct way.

Now think about how you find things online. When you’re looking for something, how often to do end up somewhere else, somewhere completely unrelated? You may be looking for things to do in Manhattan this weekend, but here’s a story about the ten best cupcakes on the Upper East Side, connected to a related story about a chef’s passion for baseball, connected to a story about the sorry state of the Yankees’ pitching this season.

I argue that this model of ‘digital grazing’, which may start with a search, or being linked to an article by a friend, or being referred via social media, is a much more accurate way of describing how people find things. The serendipitous discovery of experiences you weren’t initially looking for, but are directly interested in, is one of the most powerful ways in which you consume the Internet. The aspect of discovery and exploration is, I propose, what makes the web great.


Can’t view the video, click here.  Lenny Rachitsky: Losing Serendipity

Take a closer look at the example Lenny Rachitsky uses in the video above:

‘Serendipity: The effect by which one accidentally stumbles upon something fortunate, especially while looking for something entirely unrelated.’

– Lenny Rachisky, TED Talk

How ‘definite’ is this as a description of how people find things through search? Search only describes the ‘while looking for something’ part of the experience here, and misses the most exciting and interesting part, the discovery.

I propose that this has a direct correlation to how people find homes. Where they start is very, very rarely where they end up in the purchase. As a result, how effective can real estate ‘checkbox’ search really be outside of just a place to research? Of course, the idea that an algorithmic approach can refine the user’s experience, and tailor results accordingly in a recommendation engine has been thoroughly explored, but I think there’s a large piece of the conversation missing from here, the content and process that surrounds the home search.

If you buy into the idea that looking for a home is about more than just the four walls of the property itself, and more reflective of understanding what it feels like to live in a town, the ability to picture yourself there, and truly getting to know the area, then online home search is truly broken in its current form. Especially if you consider the element of serendipitous discovery (not knowing what you want until you see it) as an essential part of the process.

I am not describing what many characterize as ‘lifestyle search’ here. I don’t mean showing where the nearest banks and delis are situated on a map which has the property as a pin in the middle of it. What I’m proposing is the presentation of the unexpected, but highly relevant, fun, insightful and useful INSIDE the search experience. This, I believe, gets much closer to Tish Shute’s notion of ‘the magical’.

Let’s take the example of listening to customers to get feedback on your products as a potential way to do this. This has its obvious, but limited benefits, best characterized by Henry Ford when he said:

“If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

I am not advocating that you don’t listen to your customers. Of course, you absolutely need to do that. But think of Apple, one of the most magical, transformative brands ever. How much do they listen to their customers? Are they on Facebook and Twitter ‘engaging and listening’ as we’re so often encouraged to do? Do you think the original MP3 customer told them that they wanted a bright white player with only one button on it, when others in the market (the ones doing what their customers were telling them they wanted) were adding more and more buttons to every incarnation of existing player models?

Apple, and differentiated brands like them, escape the competitive herd by creating experiences that are unique, unexpected, helpful, and beautiful. Another word for this is… magical. As a result, they are able to give their existing customers, as well as their new ones, what they want. Anyone wishing to take a deeper dive into these examples should absolutely check out Youngme Moon’s book ‘Different’, which is full of incredible brand examples on this topic. She goes into great depth to describe why thinking beyond what the customer wants and focusing on what they DO and what they NEED are conduits to creating those sought after magical experiences.

So let’s bring this back to a real estate example by way of conclusion. Many advocate, listening to your customer and refining your product mix around their current needs. This is important and a necessary step. But there’s a difference in them telling you what they want. What they’re actually telling you is what they need. “I need to be able to filter these results more effectively and find what I want” – this is good for you to hear. It tells you “I am overwhelming the customer with the volume of results I’m presenting to them. My search has a problem”.

But what is it beyond that? How can you differentiate yourself in a sea of sameness? Could a potential project out of this be “I am only going to show them 3 things at once in search, but I’m going to make it so smart that I know it will be exactly the right 3 things every time, each one leading to a deep, rich and unexpected experience of home browsing”.

Wildly idealistic? Perhaps.
A huge technical challenge? Certainly.
Transformative and magical? Yes.

Is this approach what the customer wants? I think so.

Further Reading:

Youngme Moon: ‘Different, Escaping The Competitive Herd’
Guy Kawasaki: ‘Enchantment’
Jason Fried: ‘Rework’
Malcolm Gladwell: ‘Blink’
Nicholas Carr: ‘The Big Switch’

Photos courtesy of flickr