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.

Disrupt your Industry. Or be Disrupted.

A customer called us recently. His call was answered really quickly. A repair was needed to his home. His problem was diagnosed with just a couple of questions. He was given a time and date for the repair. He was told it would be in two weeks time  – a part was needed that wasn’t in stock. He thanked the Advisor for the call and went away happy.

Pretty much textbook service.

Except – he called back 10 minutes later.

He had looked for the part on his smartphone and it was available at a local store, 5 minutes from his home. So he wanted to know – why will it take 2 weeks?

This is the just the beginning of the end of 20th Century customer service.

The 21st Century customer is smarter.

  • They can find things out quicker than we can.
  • They can install an app on their phones that can solve their problem in seconds.
  • They can draw all their data and applications into one place in the time it takes for us to say the words “Customer Relationship Management”.

And if they can do it. And you can’t. Then what if someone else comes along who can?

“We live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing.” – R.D Laing

This quote – and the context in which it is used – has made me re-evaluate everything I’m working on.

It’s used in Smart Customers , Stupid Companies , a book that I’m ever so slightly in love with.

The scenario it describes is pretty simple. Disruption is coming to the way we work. Massive disruption. And it’s all going to be caused by customers who are smarter than us.

The only question is – are you going to be one of the disruptors? Innovating and implementing change at a pace that the rest of your sector just can’t keep up with.

Or are you destined to be disrupted?  Losing ground and competitive advantage. Your customers regarding you as a dinosaur. Inching ever closer to redundancy and eventual oblivion.

The sector in which I work is ripe for disruption. Not because it’s bad. Not at all.

But it has loads of interactions with customers that could be made easier through smart technology and the removal of “pain points”.

A typical applicant for housing will speak to multiple people , multiple organisations and answer a thousand questions – before they even get the keys to a door.

The technology is here to reduce all of that to a single interaction with just one person focussed on the applicant. Or – if we wanted – we could remove the human element completely.

So if the technology exists, and it saves money , and it leads to better customer experience – why hasn’t anyone done it?

  • Because it’s difficult. ( Yes – very , very difficult)
  • Because no-one can disrupt the legal contract between landlord and tenant. (At the moment yes. But they should be able to. And they will be able to. )
  • And because we – in this speeded up moment of history – cannot see the present until it has begun to disappear.

But it’s a stark choice.  Disrupt your industry. Or face being disrupted.

I know where I want to be.

%d bloggers like this: