Know Your Customers, Just Never Ask Them What They Want

We do not really know what our potential users will really respond to, what they will understand or what they’ll hate until we really see them using it –Jonathan Courtney


If you are working on any new service change or product there’s one question I guarantee will be asked of you at some point:

“What do your customers think of this?”

The thing we never say – but we need to be brave enough to is this:

“We haven’t asked them – it would be a complete waste of time”.

Despite no evidence of any real impact, each year millions of pounds are spent across the social sector on market research, focus groups, and ‘coproduction’.

At best it’s well intentioned paternalism , at worst a cynical tick box exercise.

95% of products launched this year will fail – and it won’t be for lack of customer involvement. Many of these will have asked people to articulate what they want whilst failing to actually get to the core of what they need.

It is difficult for us as users , of any service , to think in abstractions or envision a new concept.

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.

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. Unless you want your business to stand still.

Customers often don’t know what’s good for them.

If you ever go to an airport here’s a quick experiment. Look at the queue of people checking in manually versus the queue for people who’ve checked in online and are using bag drop.

Despite all the benefits (huge time saving, plus the airline can’t close the flight and move on without you) people are disposed to stick to what they know.

These are probably the same strange group who applaud the pilot and crew when the plane touches down, simply for doing their job and not killing you.

Asking them to design your next service would be catastrophic. They’d request a lot of features that they would never use.

As Jason Fried has said – a great question to ask ourselves is  what are people going to stop doing once they start using our products or services?

That’s how Amazon and Google have conquered the world – not by surveying us to death – but by understanding our problems and taking them away one day at a time.

The challenge is understanding the problem better than your competitors and then road testing solutions. As Jonathan Courtney writes, the useful data comes not from research, not from surveys – but from the first user tests.

Every pound we put into asking customers what they want is basically wasted.  My aspiration at Bromford is for us to the become the best organisation at understanding the problem, before deploying rapid experiments to prove or disprove any solution.

Our customers have big problems to solve, the social sector faces unprecedented challenges – and we simply don’t have the time anymore.


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


It’s a great line but there’s no evidence that Henry Ford ever said this. It never appeared anywhere until about 1970.

A better 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 – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

Ford understood his customers aspirations before they did.

Knowing our customers is about a deep understanding of the day to day problems they face and the opportunities they haven’t even begun to realise.

You won’t get that from your next customer workshop.


19 thoughts on “Know Your Customers, Just Never Ask Them What They Want

  1. Hallelujah! So much time, money and energy wasted over the years on asking the wrong questions. Although I confess to having contributed it dawned on me a few years ago how futile it was. You need a strong argument to stand up to those who would say this is preposterous, and you’ve made one. It makes sound sense. I think there’s some valuable learning potentially from involving customers in some of the research to understand the problem and in a way that helps develop the relationship in a more productive and less frustrating manner.

    1. Thanks Paul – and bear in mind I spent about 8 years of my career running a customer involvement and feedback function! Where I’ve got to was although that did do some valuable work about scrutinising existing services it did very little in terms of invention of the next wave. In fact I think it may even have slowed down or blocked development because of the very status quo bias I refer to above.

      Appreciate the comment.

  2. Hi Paul, that’s absolutely my experience. Thanks so much for articulating it. It’s even harder with services such as new drug & alcohol treatment centres… where I’ve found the best that can be done is to offer some concrete choices (here or there, open at this time or that) and then get experiential feedback once it starts and be prepared to modify and adapt.

    1. Thanks Russell – and I think it’s important to recognise this as a universal problem that can be avoided by the very steps you outline. My colleague Tom calls it proximity bias – the closer we are to something the more difficult it is to step back and see a future iteration.

  3. I’m not sure of the answer to this ? Is it ignore your customers ?? What is the point of listening to the customer in the first place ?

    1. Thanks Kristelle – it’s certainly not to ignore them.

      Asking someone to consider the future is a bit like saying, “Tell me how you will behave when you are not thinking about what I have just asked you about.”

      It comes down to knowing them rather than asking or even listening.

      Instead of listening you can just watch them.

      Small tests and experiments are a lot cheaper than lots of meetings and research.

  4. This is really thought provoking – and thank you for articulating this so well. I would say we need to get adept at BOTH listening and WATCHING/KNOWING at the same time. If we attempt to ‘know’ someones needs without the process and involvement of truly listening to people, then we miss out on their emotional connection with the issues. Being able to respect each individual as well as a whole set of population needs is where the real magic is, and sometimes we can only achieve that by connecting with people with an open mind…. Thanks though – great to read!

  5. Thank you and absolutely. This post has attracted some criticism on Twitter and I think people missed it’s not a binary choice. Knowing includes listening, talking, observing and can only be achieved through genuine customer centricity.

    Saying “don’t ask customers what they want” isn’t anti-customer – it’s saying you need to work much harder at developing a real understanding of the problem.

    1. Thanks Paul. I agree – and I completely heard that in your post. I haven’t read any of the negative comments – but that’s really sad to hear. Your view is genuinely inclusive…and your work CLEARLY promotes involvement and leadership by those who are most affected by the issues. I think the challenges perhaps lie in the fact that many organisations (For example NHS and other public sector bodies) haven’t yet caught up with anything beyond tokenism, and in that context, your perspective is maybe misunderstood as further disenfranchising those who are already excluded…. We have a lot of work to do (in the NHS) to really explore what matters to and for patients (‘customers’?)….and as you say, this requires a change of mindset for the ‘system’. I really enjoyed your post – so thank you so much for writing it and sharing your views!

  6. Thanks Paul, I find this post a really good food for thought!
    I absolutely agree about the dangers of asking the average user what they want. As opposed to listening to HOW and WHY they currently do things (and WHY not doing those things other ways)
    Listening the customer/user is essential, but I always found that much better quality insights are coming from trying to understand the current behaviours, then to ask about their wishes. Though, wishes can often be a good starting point to drill down why they think they want those things at first.

    I think it partially boils down to the fact that asking questions about the present and past helps the customer to come up with practical cases and concrete examples, while asking about the future often brings up assumptions and wishful thinking.

  7. Very controversial Paul (!) but resonates with Clayton Christiansen’s latest thinking. I like to approach it more from a Steve Jobs perspective of getting so close to your customers that you predict what they want before they realise it themselves. And the Apple way to do that is actually through surveys, and understanding what the dissatisfaction results are telling you, rather than continuing to focus just on how well you’re doing with satisfaction or succumbing to analysis paralysis. The clear danger for the public sector in accepting your advice is a return ( or endorsement) of the tendency for the tick box paternalism of the ‘we know best’ approach. And isn’t that The antithesis of Bromford’s strengths based approach?

    1. Thanks Peter – you’re right to clarify that Apple have a very active VoC programme regularly surveying customers and employees and tracking the results across stores.

      What I think is interesting – and this goes to your second point – is the response to the post on Twitter. It’s been very evenly divided with half (mainly people in service design etc) agreeing and another half (mainly public sector – and specifically housing) disagreeing.

      The upshot of their argument seems to be the ‘tenant knows best’ which I think needs some challenge. Whilst I agree that tenants absolutely are closer to the problem than the average Director, I would also say the same about someone working in a contact team.

      And in both cases I don’t think proximity to the problem automatically makes you the best person to solve it.

      So I think the answer is more nuanced – it’s not “don’t listen to customers” but it is “do get to know them”. And in knowing them you then have to be very circumspect about whether you’re the best people to solve any problem. If it is a problem then it’s about engaging users in the testing of those services, and continuously validating your efforts through customer feedback and impact analysis.

      That’s why I think my post is absolutely in line with our strengths based approach to communities. That’s about getting to know people , their problems , but also their gifts – and not assuming the answer to everything is , god forbid, a housing association!

      Some of the responses I’d challenge seem to encourage housing associations, health, social care, to over stretch themselves and just do more and more based on wants – the very thing the likes of Apple have studiously avoided.

      Sorry for long comment – you’ve inspired a follow up post

      1. Spot on Paul and glad Ive inspired the next post 🙂
        Getting to know customers by getting under the skin of dissatisfaction (rather than just surveying and focussing on the ‘customer satisfaction’ benchmarking tick box) is the key to it all for me.
        In doing that can you then start to understand where you need to go, and to iterate, test and design new ways of working or new services.
        And let’s face it, the basics of a good housing customer experience for 95% of customers really are very basic. Do what you say you will do on customer service and repairs, when you say will do it, and look after the neighbourhood. Anything else is usually peripheral.
        And if housing organisations genuinely listen to the majority of their customers, they’ll find the basics are that they they don’t need to do much more than that.
        Much of the ‘Added value’ delivered by the public sector is more often that not driven by the paternalism of the we know best brigade 🙂

        1. Exactly – when the value to customers is driven through just a few things it can pay to do less listening and just resource how to get the basics right.

  8. Excellent post Paul….provocative, challenging, different – what’s not to like!

    I think of Starbucks and how they almost single handedly turned the coffee industry on its head and how so many of us found out that all along what we really wanted was an expensive latte……but if you’d asked us beforehand we wouldn’t have had a clue!

    1. Exactly – they created market rather than reacted to it. Came across a quote recently I liked on same subject:

      “How can people tell you what they want if they haven’t seen it before? If we ask them what they want, we’ll end up doing Swan Lake every year!”  — Mario D’Amico, senior VP of marketing at Cirque du Soleil

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