Should you actually listen to your customers?

Barely a day goes by without somebody sagely remarking to me just how important it is to “listen to your customers”.

Generally they do it because they think I’ll agree.  It’s not really advice so much as it is an act of solidarity.  The message is that we’re in the customer-centric club, and that we know how good strategy is really done, and woe betide those businesses foolish enough to ignore them.

Of course I always nod and agree, “yes yes, gotta listen to those customers”.

But in truth?

I’m actually not so sure.

You see although the goal here is explicitly to serve customers as best we can, I actually don’t believe that the customers themselves are the best inspiration for how we can do that.

In fact, I’d take it one step further: customers are deeply misleading creatures.

There are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. They’ll encourage you to commodify
  2. They’ll distract you from your core strategy

Let me address each of these in turn.

I. They’ll encourage you to commodify

This is a bit over-simplistic, but speaking broadly if you ask a customer what they want, their answer will be for you to become more like your competitors.

This happens both indirectly and directly.

First, they will tend to voice the most basic and obvious needs that exist in the category (e.g. wanting you to lower price etc.), which means that your competitors will know these things too.  Consequently, because you’re all trying to “respond to customer needs” you will all cluster around these obvious territories – telling yourself you’re being customer-centric when in fact you’re simply falling prey to your customers’ lack of imagination.

Second, they will often actually tell you straight that they want you do match the offerings of another brand. “Oh, they do this, so why don’t you?”.  The result of following that advice is of course further commodification – something which suits the customer down to the ground.

After all what happens when markets commodify?

Quality goes up, price goes down.  Good for them maybe, but not so great for you.

II. They’ll distract you from your core strategy

In addition to their generally unhelpful advice, the other thing you’ve gotta remember is that they don’t give a damn about your strategic focus.

To be strategic is, by definition, to take some choices and make some sacrifices – meaning that you’re going to let a lot of customers down a lot of the time.

As a result, a truly strategic brand will take a lot of criticism, and often be in sharp contradiction to many “customer needs”.  This is of course necessary to gain competitive advantage, but they don’t know that – and often neither will the business asking the question.

This means that customer feedback often has a corrosive effect on strategy.  Dissolving it until there’s nothing left of real meaning – just a generic crowd-pleasing sludge.

So what’s the alternative?

It’s because of these reasons that, whilst we should naturally seek to understand our customers, we should focus our primary attention not on them, but our competitors.

They are the true source of meaningful insight.

When you look at your competitors, what you see is not only a neat summary of existing consumer needs (as demonstrated by their offers, which are no doubt the result of their own customer-listening exercises), but you also see the “negative space” their offers leave behind.

This space defines the potential strategic territory.

What is missing?
What would the opposite look like?
What would be surprising?

Not all the answers to these questions will be useful, but they will at least be creative and provocative.  They will at least put you in the strategic frame of mind – which the dull truisms spouted by your customers probably won’t.

Once you’ve identified a promising idea, then you can think about whether or not customers would go for it.  But you’re rarely going to get it from them in the first place.

So look, OK, I’m being a touch facetious here.  Of course I agree with the general sentiment.  Of course we should speak to our customers.  Absolutely.

But never forget: the game we are playing is competitive advantage.

And doing such an obviously sensible exercise is never going to give you that.  “Sensible” never does.

Sometimes you’ve got to break with good sense, and see where it takes you.

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