The Right (and Wrong) Way to Listen to Customers

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“If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Henry Ford (Attributed)
“We don’t ask consumers what they want. They don’t know. Instead we apply our brain power to what they need, and will want, and make sure we’re there, ready.”
Akio Morita, Co-Founder of Sony
Dozens of books and articles have been written about the importance of listening to customers. Providing great customer experiences has become a top strategic priority for many companies, and listening to the “voice of the customer” is widely seen as an essential ingredient in the recipe for customer experience success.
Marketing often has the primary responsibility for gathering, analyzing, and developing actionable insights from customer inputs. So it’s important for marketers to understand that listening to customers in the right way is undeniably valuable, while listening in the wrong ways or for the wrong reasons is a bad idea.
Companies frequently seek customer input in order to design and develop products or services that will be attractive in a given market. However, many companies still struggle to launch new solutions that gain traction with potential buyers. Of course, a new product or service can fail because a company hasn’t listened enough to its customers. But failures also occur because companies listen to customers in the wrong ways.
In a common scenario, companies ask their customers what they want and encourage them to describe specific product or service features that would be desirable. The problem is, most customers aren’t well suited to perform this task.

Most customers have a limited frame of reference. Like all humans, most of what they know is based on their past experiences. This means that customers can usually do a good job of describing what they want when they’re asked about familiar products or services. But when they’re asked to imagine or describe new product or service features or capabilities, their input isn’t as helpful.

The cause of the problem is a cognitive bias that psychologists call functional fixedness. This bias refers to the natural human tendency to perceive objects only in terms of their typical or normal functions. Functional fixedness can be useful in everyday life, but it can also stifle creative thinking and prevent people from seeing alternative solutions to problems.

Functional fixedness causes people to fixate on the features and attributes that a product usually possesses, and this makes it difficult for them to imagine what new features or capabilities would make a product or service more useful and valuable. In short, most customers have difficulty describing product or service features or capabilities they’ve never experienced.

As a result, they often describe features or functions that will offer only modest or incremental improvements over whatever already exists. When a company relies solely on this type of input, it can miss opportunities to develop breakthrough innovations that customers would find extremely attractive.

The key to listening to customers the right way is to shift the focus from specific product or service features or functionality to what customers are trying to accomplish – to the “jobs” they are trying to get done. Customers may not be particularly adept at describing specific solutions, but with a little encouragement, they can usually provide a good description of what they are trying to accomplish and what problems or frustrations they are facing.

Focusing customer input on desired outcomes enables you to better understand what customers will really value, and this helps you design solutions that customers will be anxious to buy. So by all means, don’t stop listening to your customers. Just be sure you are listening in the right way.

Image courtesy of frontriver via Flickr CC.

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