BUILDERS HAVE BECOME very savvy at surveying customers to find out what they want in a home. But a new study suggests that the most successful companies go beyond listening to what customers say they want and instead anticipate their needs before customers even know they have them.

In a new study in the Journal of Product Innovation Management, marketing researchers at the University of Washington and Colorado State University found that the more a company operates with a pro-active market orientation, the more successful its new product launches will be. That orientation looks less at customers' expressed needs—what they say they want—and more at their latent needs, those which customers might not even know they have.

Latent needs are uncovered by watching what customers do and how they use existing products. For example, Rubbermaid regularly sends product developers to fast-food restaurants and hospital cafeterias. Watching cooks stir pots of boiling water with regular spatulas led them to develop a heat-resistant model.

Other approaches include monitoring complaints and warranty claims to find opportunities for complementary products or services to make customers' lives easier.

Designing products that only meet expressed needs leaves a company vulnerable, the study says, because the competition has the same information and eventually, products become so similar that low price becomes the primary selling point.