What customers can’t tell you, but you need to know.


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Why Steve Jobs argued both for and against customer research, and was right both times.

I was discussing with a client last week about different kinds of customer research and their relative value. I found myself quoting Steve Jobs twice, but on both sides of an argument. It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on why, and its relevance to CX today.

Way back in 1985, Steve Jobs said in describing his approach to product research and development “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the solution – not the other way around.” Asking customers about their needs, opinions and feedback seems like an obvious way to understand their needs. But there is a significant body of work, both theoretical and practical, which tells us that it’s not enough. So what’s going on?

A quick example:

We conducted some research for a client last month, to understand customer behaviours and perceptions of their stores. On a simple satisfaction score, the customers gave an excellent 4.75/5 average rating. So, no real room for improvement, right?

Wrong… Our observational research of the same customers showed that the overwhelming majority were confused as they entered the store, and were not sure where to go or what to do. Some queued or waited, some approached a desk directly, some sought help from other customers; others looked around and simply wandered out again. Interestingly, many arrived in pairs, though the entire space (counters, etc) was set up for individuals. Overall, the customer arrival, queuing and flow were in fact unwelcoming, confusing and inefficient for both customer and organisation. But not a single customer reported this as a concern in exit interviews and when we probed deeper it was usually because they blamed themselves for not understanding what to do!

So what’s the point?

Conventional customer research is usually very insightful. But it also misses what customers can’t tell you. For this you need observational or ‘contextual’ style research, yet these techniques are not yet very widely used or understood, (except perhaps in Digital teams where they can form a key part of good UX design). Steve Jobs expressed this gap, in typically Jobs style:

“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”

• And more famously – “Customers don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Understanding what customers need but can’t tell you, is often the key to innovation and market differentiation. So the moral of this story? If you need a great Customer Experience, or an innovative product or competitive market edge, don’t just ask your customers… watch them!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Chris Severn
Co Founder and Director of The Customer Experience Company. Expert in Customer strategy, and delivery of customer improvements in service, sales and marketing, and across online, call centres and retail channels.


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