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Why You Shouldn’t Ask Customers What They Want

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Why You Shouldn’t Ask Customers What They Want

The customer is always right.  If you involve customers –  you’ll make better decisions. 

The only problem with statements like these is that they don’t seem to account for all those occasions when the customer wasn’t right. They don’t explain the fact that, despite high degrees of customer involvement and extensive market research, between 70-90% of all new product launches still fail.

Perhaps then, customers can’t actually tell us what they want, because they don’t know themselves.

{Note: for the following article I’m using customer as shorthand for any user of your organisation or service, including employees}

Last week, Nick Chater, Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School, delivered a talk to our Board. It made me think that we tend to take rational ‘commonsense’ for granted, so much so that we design new products and services without taking into account irrational or illogical behaviours.

We have irrational customers but we design rational customer experiences.

Indeed – we are fighting the idea that customers are often irrational. 

There is little evidence that we can even predict our own behaviour. We don’t necessarily know why we make decisions. When anyone proposes a change – even humdrum day to day changes (think self-serve check outs in supermarkets , or charging people for plastic bags) – we don’t react rationally.

That’s why , for example, so few people switch fuel suppliers despite the fact they’d be better off by doing so.

Our status quo bias, the tendency for us to lean towards doing nothing or maintaining our current or previous decision – is a strong reason for never asking customers what they want.  Every pound we put into asking customers what they want is basically wasted.

Have you really got the time to be distracted by what customers think they want?

Lessons from New Coke

In 1985 one of the biggest brands in the world nearly destroyed itself – by listening to what customers said.

Coca-Cola developed a product dubbed “New Coke” that was slightly sweeter than the original. Almost 200,000 blind taste tests were conducted and most participants said that they favoured New Coke over both the original formula and the companies bitter rival, Pepsi.

Hundreds of thousands of people can’t be wrong, right?

New Coke tanked – costing the company millions, with the CEO later commenting that they had “drawn a moustache on the Mona Lisa.”

There were two main lessons learned:

1: The research was flawed as it was based almost entirely on sip tests—a comparison of sips, not someone enjoying an entire drink. A blind test in a lab type environment was out of context compared to the experience of , say, drinking a Coke in the garden on a summer’s day

2: No-one realised the symbolic value and emotional involvement people had with the original Coke.  What customers said was “yes, this tastes a lot nicer” but when the product hit the market they behaved entirely differently. Influenced by their emotions and a status quo bias to keep things the same, they demanded the old Coke back.

Many of our organisations are still making these same mistakes – assembling focus groups and panels and involving users in ways that are wholly artificial compared to an actual customers lived experience.

The ‘customer knows best’ argument needs some challenge.

Whilst I agree that users are almost always closer to the problem than the average senior manager or executive, proximity to the problem doesn’t automatically make you the best person to solve it.

Solutions require subject matter experts who have a deep knowledge of the root cause of the problem and can look through multiple lenses to craft a response.

The idea that a customer can provide that based on fairly limited knowledge (or interest) is naive.

Designing the right solution means testing for irrational behaviours.

And that can only come by observing what people actually do rather than basing decisions on what you think , or what they say, they’d do.

The research of Clayton Christensen found that companies that fail often listen to their customers too much.

As users we struggle to envisage the future. Indeed, asking someone to consider the future is a bit like saying, “Tell me how you will behave in five years time when I’ve rolled out the service I’ve just asked you about.”

Arguably the best time to engage customers is the feed into the problem definition – and then at every stage through iterative testing, pilot and subsequent release.

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses – (not said by) Henry Ford

It’s a great line but there’s no evidence that Ford ever said this. It never appeared anywhere until about 1970. A longer quote , and one he did say in his 1922 book, is this:

“I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one.”

Ford understood his customers aspirations long before they did.

We’ll only ever solve problems through having a deep understanding of our users and customers. That means accepting their flaws, their biases, and the fact they often make bad decisions.

Only by testing real products and real services with real customers in real-world situations can we hope to understand how people truly behave.

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