Ignore Your Customers on These Four Occasions

Listen to your customers.  This advice is so old and so sacrosanct that I suspect Jesus used it while managing the apostles.

“Hey team, we just received a parchment survey from a very upset customer.  Apparently, at that last Sea of Galilee event, we were not getting those baskets of fish and loaves out fast enough.  Let’s sharpen our focus, people!  Leperpalooza is just around the corner and we need to be on our game!”  

The logic behind listening to your customers is blindingly obvious, so unlike the typical business book, I am not going to spend three thousand words trying to convince you it’s a good idea.  Instead, I would like to argue that in some situations, you should not follow this advice.

Here are four scenarios in which you’re better off consulting a clairvoyant than listening to your customers:

1.  Don’t ask your customers about anything related to money

First of all, never give customers the option in a focus group or on a survey to tell you your product should be cheaper. Their answer will always be yes.

Furthermore, don’t ask them to compare the price to other facets of your product.  If you give them a list of features or benefits and ask what they value most, they will consistently pick price first.  Even hedge fund managers talking about their mink-lined underpants will claim that price is most important to them.

And in the name of all that is holy, whatever you do, don’t ask them to tell you how much you should charge for the product.  The answer they give will have no relation to what they will actually pay.

Why are customers such unreliable guides in this area?  I don’t know, but here’s my speculation:

First, we are asking customers to cooly and rationally project what they will do, when spending money is instead an emotional, visceral action.  Few customers would ever predict that they would spend $1000 on a handbag, or $500 for an Oak Ridge Boys concert ticket.  But in the real world, these things happen all the time.

Secondly, most of us spend our entire lives being price takers.  This can make us feel powerless.  Participating in a survey may feel like a chance to finally stick up one’s middle finger at the powerful price setters.   Take that you monopolistic #&@$!

If you want accurate guidance on how much you can charge for your product, there’s only one reliable way to get it.  Put your product into the market at your favored price and see if customers are willing to pay it.

2. Don’t ask your customers about their vices or virtues

Many psychological studies have demonstrated that the vast majority of us think we’re better than average, whether it’s our attractiveness to the opposite sex or our ability to safely pilot a car.  I call this LWS–Lake Wobegone Syndrome.

This is why, if you’re anything like me, you are shocked every time you look in the mirror.  “Who the hell is that guy?” my internal voice screams.  The cold, uncompromising reality of the mirror clashes violently with my Adonis-like self image.  Where did my hair go?  Where are my rippled biceps?  And for some reason I am completely surprised every time, even though I looked into that same heartless mirror one short day ago.

Perhaps there’s an evolutionary advantage to this constant self-delusion.  Maybe believing we could outrun that lion saved some of us on the Serengeti thousands of years ago, giving us the confidence necessary to shave a few tenths of a second off our two-hundred-meter sprint times.  I don’t know.

Whatever the reason, LWS is very real and will show up anytime you ask customers to predict their behavior in ways that threaten or enhance their self image.

For example, everyone wants to believe they’re being responsible stewards of this planet–even coal company executives.  Several years ago, in the early days of environmental awareness, a paper goods manufacturer asked consumers if they would buy towels made from recycled paper, even if the quality of the product was a bit reduced.   The vast majority said yes–enthusiastically.  In fact, they said they would even pay a bit more because it was the right thing to do. Far be it from them to continue pillaging our forests just so they could avoid the inconvenience of washing a rag.

Using this research, the company launched a line of paper towels manufactured from recycled paper.  The quality was a bit less and the price a few cents higher than their conventional towels.  The results?  You guessed it.  The recycled towels collected dust on store shelves.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not saying people will never buy environmentally-friendly products.  I’m just saying that more people will predict they will buy them than actually will, even in this age of Teslas and organic house paint.

So people will overestimate their virtues, but what about their vices?  Well, let me ask you this:  How accurately will people estimate the number of hours they spend watching TV each day?  Or how many calories they consume?  Or how often they let their kids eat Pop-Tarts for breakfast?

You know the answer of course.  Customers will very consistently underestimate how often they commit these sins.  To do otherwise would defile their self image.

Listening to customers too closely in these kinds of cases can cause you to overlook lucrative business opportunities.

3. Don’t ask your customers what new products or services you should create for them

First of all, this is not their job, it’s yours.  And because it’s not their job, they haven’t been thinking about it.  So when you start interrogating them in a focus group, their answer is generally going to be some form of, “I don’t know.”

But even if they were thinking about it, they would have a hard time helping you imagine products beyond mildly improved versions of what they currently use. They, like the rest of us, are trapped in their current context.

There’s an old Henry Ford quote that goes something like, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”  He probably didn’t say it, like most quotes you find on the Internet, but it nicely illustrates the point.

Great leaps forward in technology (cars, mobile phones, the Internet) are obvious examples of products that could never emerge from customer conversations.  But as Clayton Christensen illustrated in his The Innovator’s Dilemma, even modestly new products or technologies can be met with skepticism by customers.  Only innovations that offer more performance on today’s axes of utility will be greeted enthusiastically (e.g. bigger televisions with sharper images; chocolate chip cookies with more chips; etc.)  Do we really need to ask customers whether or not they would prefer more of something they already like?

4. Don’t ask your customers why they do what they do

There are exceptions to this rule.  Exceptionally gifted qualitative researchers, with the right research subjects and some luck, can sometimes pull this off.

And it’s often worth trying, for if you can figure out why people do what they do, it can be powerfully useful.

But generally, people don’t know why they do what they do.  They either literally can’t articulate the reasons, or the rational part of their brain deceives them and claims credit for the things the emotional part is controlling.  Dan Kahneman refers to this as the man riding the elephant.  The man (your rational brain) thinks he’s really in control, but the elephant (your emotional brain) can actually decide to do whatever it wants to.

On the rare occasions when customers truly understand what’s going on in their head, there are often good reasons why they don’t want to be honest about it, either for the reasons cited above (vices or virtues that challenge their self image) or for the simple reason that they may find it uncomfortable to reveal it to strangers.

So go forth and listen to your customers, just as the old adage suggests.  Just do so carefully!


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