Why You Shouldn’t Ask Customers What They Want

In the time when banking went from transactions to experiences, superior customer service became one of the most important features of products/businesses/solutions. Poor customer experience, inability and lack of desire to listen to customers is often perceived almost as a deadly sin.

In every more or less meaningful conversation about the secret of success in the startup ecosystem, you will probably hear something about focusing on the customer, listening to the customer, putting customer in the center of your business, superior user experience, solve a pain and things like that. But history has a different lesson to teach as well, and some of the world’s most successful corporations across industries that went down the ask the customer road, learned it to be a complete fiasco (like New Coke experiment) while others proved that a third of America’s population couldn’t even express their preferences and desires in tomato sauces until they tasted them.

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses, are probably some of the most well-known words believed to be said by the greatest mind of the automotive industry, Henry Ford.

Henry Ford wasn’t the only mastermind taking a completely opposite approach to what now is widely believed to be a death sentence for the business. Loved and almost worshiped by millions of Apple fans and beyond, Steve Jobs have been thinking in a similar stream when he was revolutionizing the electronic devices industry by building the culture of iPods, iPhone and iPads and personal relationships with devices.

As Jobs said, It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Without the need for customers to express their desires, Jobs was able to introduce completely new categories of devices and make them mainstream. For the generations that grew up in the world of iPads, it became quite difficult to imagine the time when such a category didn’t even exist. Surely, Jobs had an army of some of the most talented designers in the world to afford a sheltered innovation, but he proved that asking a customer is not always the key to success.

Another notable tycoon, this time from the retail industry, Leslie Wexner, CEO, Chairman, and Founder of L Brands, a $28 billion market cap company over Victoria’s Secret, Pink, La Senza, Henri Bendel and Bath & Body Works, expressed a though similar under the hood, saying, Creators know how difficult it is to create a brand. They understand how fragile their brand’s equity is. We know that the force of gravity is likely to bring you down. We know that success breeds competition. And the most loyal consumer is loyal for about 32 seconds. You can’t and shouldn’t count on them for their loyalty. You need to win them back with reinvention. Everything changes. So if you don’t exercise the change muscle, then you just lose the ability to change. You either go out of business or you evolve into a different position.

In the interview with Quartz, Michael Pao of Greylock Partners quoted Jobs’ phrase as one of his favorites when speaking of Uber’s disruptive business and the lessons he took to his job at the venture firm. One of the interesting parts of the discussion is when Pao commented on the controversy of listening to the customers regarding surge pricing in the ride-sharing business, saying, …Historically, over the years, the rider perception of surge pricing has been less positive. It’s mixed at best. If you listen to riders, they want you to turn off surge or cap surge. But if you do that, that means a lot of people won’t get rides. Like Jobs said, you kind of have to make the call.

The world’s most successful, beautiful and followed fantasy venture that could crown the idea of a sheer innovation is Cirque du Soleil. Interestingly, Mario D’Amico, Senior VP of marketing at Cirque du Soleil, believes in embracing the inner vision and the idea of sheltered innovation. As D’Amico commented, Why do we want to ask what our audience thinks? We don’t care what they think. 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!

There have been even studies suggesting that customers can be terrible at predicting their future intentions when asked via a survey or a similar form of feedback. It means that in the addition to the probably substantial possibility of lying, customers may not be able to match the assessment of their own future behavior to their actual behavior. There is no guarantee at all that the expressed intention or desire will remain the same and result in the according action a day after the customer was asked.

As Clotaire Rapaille, a marketing consultant and the CEO and Founder of Archetype Discoveries Worldwide Rapaille, said, Now, my experience is that most of the time, people have no idea why they're doing what they're doing. They have no idea, so they're going to try to make up something that makes sense.

The bottom line, as Patrick Vlaskovits, an entrepreneur, Co-founder of Superpowered, wrote in his HBR article, is An innovator should have an understanding of one’s customers and their problems via empirical, observational, anecdotal methods or even intuition. They should also feel free to ignore customers’ inputs. In addition, as the WSJ blogger put it, The best way of determining customer demand is to build a prototype of the product—what startup guru Eric Reis calls the minimum viable product. Get this into the hands of the customer as fast as you can. Don’t worry about the completeness of the product or its polish.