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.

How Not To Involve Customers

NewCoke-768x384@2x

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.

In my last post I argued that we should know our customers, just never ask them what they want.  It drew quite a lot of comment and challenge with some points that merit further debate.

The top three charges were these:

1 – You’re saying professionals know best

No I’m not – but I do think 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.

‘How can staff know the customer experience better than they do themselves?’ was a typical comment.

I think we are in danger of conflating two things here.  Experience of the problem and the creation of a potential solution.

As a road user I can sit in a traffic jam and moan about it all day long , but I can no more design you a solution than I can build a rocket to Mars.

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.

2 – You’re saying customers are irrational

No – I’m saying we are all irrational and often make decisions accordingly.

At least three of my friends have chosen to holiday in the UK this summer citing concerns over terrorism. Statistically you’re 10 times more likely to die by falling down the stairs than you are in a terrorist attack – but none of them, as far as I know, are moving to bungalows.

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.

3 – You’re saying don’t listen to customers.

No – I’m saying just don’t let that be your only basis for decision making.

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.”

At Bromford we are considering how we maximise customer input where it really adds value.

For us it’s the feed into the problem definition – and then at every stage through iterative testing, pilot and subsequent release (or shelving).

It’s balanced by robust internal insight measures as well. As this graphic by Tom Hartland shows – just because a customer likes something doesn’t mean it’s good business sense.

Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 06.00.04

 

You’ll see that customers are generally not involved at the initial design stage – where we see that it’s our job to find out what they need, without directly asking them.

It’s useful to frame this in three steps:

  1. Know your customer. What are their likes and dislikes?
  2. Know your product. What are you offering and what problem does it solve for them?
  3. Know the thing. What is the ONE thing that the customer wants that makes what you’re providing special?

Saying “don’t ask customers what they want” isn’t anti-customer – it’s saying you need to work much harder at really knowing them.

Muhtar Kent, the outgoing CEO at Coca Cola said this recently:

“We’re still talking about New Coke and its lessons, which become clearer with each passing anniversary. We no longer control—if we ever did—the conversation about our brands. But we must be part of it. We listen, we analyse, we respond.”

Right now I’ll bet your organisation is developing services, transforming existing ones or getting hugely excited about new product launches – based upon what people say they want.

One of them could be your New Coke.

Question is, which one?

Most Services Launched This Year Will Fail – Here’s Why