Why listening to customers can sometimes be a bad thing
“We listen to our customers” is a claim we hear from product makers frequently. It’s supposed to assure us that the company has in mind the best interests of its users. But what if listening to customers is actually the last thing a company should be doing?
Take your kids for example. Are you a parent who does what your children ask? Do you feed them what they want when they want it, and then fix them something else if they decide that what you’ve provided is less than ideal? Do you fear that if you don’t do what your kids ask that they’ll find other parents?
Persons in positions of authority are expected to lead, not follow. They are expected to know what’s right, even if it’s not popular, and they are expected to stay ahead of the pack. They are expected to provide answers for questions that haven’t even been asked.
So why then are so many companies listening to their customers?
Faster Horses Would Have Sold Well Too
“If I had asked customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse” is a quote Steve Jobs once attributed to Henry Ford when justifying Apple’s way of doing things. There’s doubt about whether Ford was the correct source, but there’s no doubting the quote’s meaning: customers don’t always know what they want.
To be clear, customers always know what they like. Show people the Motorola Razr in 2005 and they would have told you they like it. Ask what they wanted next and they likely would have described some variation of the Razr -- perhaps lighter, faster or in different colors.
Then, of course, came the iPhone, which made discussions about new Razr-like devices far less interesting. What do you think Motorola, Nokia and Research In Motion were doing while Apple was designing the iPhone? And what was Western Union doing while PayPal was on the drawing boards?
Business history is full of examples of companies that have listened to customers instead of reinventing themselves to better serve customers.
Customer Requests Are a Lagging Indicator
The problem with customer requests is that they come too late. All the “should haves” that customers voice across social media are as useful for improving product development as a sportscaster’s calls are for improving a game.
By the time customers comment on what’s been released, it’s too late. Most customer requests come not from vision but from having seen a feature in another product. The other guy has it, so they want it too. Customer requests like these say little more to a company than, "You’ve missed the boat and you’ve fallen behind."
When a company finally does decide to give customers what they want, new releases are typically met with “it’s about time” more than any appreciation. And, as marketing people know, “it’s about time” features don’t read well in press releases.
B2B Customers Are Too Self Focused
The other danger of business-to-business (B2B) customer requests is that they are typically about improving things for that customer but not all customers. Some vendors are prone to honoring such requests, especially when they come from the highest bidder or the squeakiest wheel. But this just leads to feature bloat that makes products cumbersome.
Software vendors in particular often forget that we built APIs specifically for the purpose of extending the product to meet nonstandard needs. When a product management team is doing the work of a services team, something is wrong.
Someone Has to Be the Daddy
Recall your interactions with really creative and talented people -- designers, writers, technical visionaries. Chances are you’ve found that with just a little direction these people are able to take the lead and produce results. Rare is the creative genius who asks for step-by-step guidance.
As the developer of a product, it’s up to you to be that creative genius.
Your customers don’t want to have to tell you what you should be doing any more than you want to have to offer pixel-by-pixel coaching to an illustrator. Customers pay you for your leadership. Don’t think that asking customers what they want is showing respect for their wishes. In fact, asking customers what they want is showing them that they’ve picked the wrong brand.
Ideally, customers should be at least three years behind your vision. If they are not, then you have a vision problem.
Stay Ahead of the Airplane
There’s a saying in Aviation that a good pilot stays ahead of the airplane. It means that no matter what happens in flight, the pilot is never caught off guard.
How far ahead of your market is your company? Are you reacting to what you see other vendors doing or are you defining the standard that others try to copy?
Here are some questions to bring up at your next strategy meeting:
- What are we known for?
- Does the market expect innovation from us? (If not, why?)
- What percentage of our product road map is dedicated to playing “catch up” with competitors?
- Are customers telling us what they like and don’t like or are they telling us what we need to do?
Responding to customer requests makes you a follower, not a leader. Customers are great sounding boards for fine-tuning your ideas, but customers should never be the source of your ideas. Involve them by showing them what you have in mind. Customers are much better at telling you what they like than they are at telling you what to do.
Reverse Engineer Apple
There can be significant benefits to companies that are guided by self-generated innovation and not by customer complaints or market influence:
- You reduce your competition because you define your market. No one is exactly like you, no one can keep up with you, and no one can guess where you’re headed.
- You can increase your margins because your brand has become its own asset and the market has determined you’re worth the extra cost.
- You can enter into more lucrative partner and customer relationships because your brand is valued and everyone wants a piece of it.
- You safeguard future revenue streams because your uniqueness makes it more difficult for customers to leave.
Compare these benefits to the ones you expect from your current product road map. Make sure you’re not thinking too small. If you’re limited to thinking in terms of new features that will make customers happy, you’re just feeding sugar to your kids.
When you envision the best product your company could deliver, is it merely a faster horse?
Title image courtesy of Christopher Boswell (Shutterstock)
Editor's Note: Want to read more by David? Go no further: DAM Beauty and Usability