Wait, did I just say to ignore customer feedback? Yes, I did. I’ve talked several times here before about the importance of listening to your customers and describing techniques for doing so. Sometimes though, there are times when you shouldn’t listen to customers and that’s what we’re going to talk about today. Here’s when to listen to customer feedback and when to ignore it.


“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”


This quote is often attributed to Henry Ford and sums up the idea that customers don’t know what they want. More recently, Steve Jobs reiterated this idea when he famously quipped, “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.” While Forbes pooh-poohed this bit of advice as misguided, Jobs and Ford had a valid point:


Asking customer what they want doesn’t always bring the desired results, for you or for them. Customers won’t always tell you what they want, often because they don’t actually know what they want—this is especially true when it comes to paradigm-shifting products and services. To ridiculously paraphrase US Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart, your customers don’t know what they want, but they know it when they see it.


Today’s ideas won’t take you to tomorrow. You need fresh ideas, which is why in industries and organizations where innovation is king, asking customers what they want is often not effective.


All that being said though, even Jobs did listen to his customers. The crucial difference between Jobs and other innovators though, was that he didn’t ask customer what they wanted. He asked what problems they faced and then worked to alleviate those pain points.


Put another way, customer feedback provided Apple a destination and Apple figured out how to get there on its own.


For example, Jobs saw the music industry as an industry ripe for disruption. In the ‘90s, the industry was still using the business model it had used since Edison invented the phonograph: one or two singles packaged with several mediocre songs into one album.


Jobs turned this model on its head with the development of iTunes and the iPod. Apple’s customers didn’t know they wanted iPods, but they knew they didn’t like the current music system. Jobs took that feedback and used the problem people were facing as his destination. The route Apple took to get to that destination happened to be a revolutionary software program and a ground-breaking piece of hardware.


The takeaway here is that it’s not the customer’s job to tell you how to solve their problems—that’s your job. What customer feedback does is help you identify what the problems are.


The trick with customer feedback, says Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, is understanding what it’s good for:


“Customer feedback is great for telling you what you did wrong. It’s terrible at telling you what you should do next.”


Don’t let customer’s rule your design process, but don’t ignore your customers either. They have valuable insights to offer, even if they don’t know what they want.


Listen to your customers to find their problems. Innovate your way to a solution for those problems. Then ask your customers how you can refine your solution to better serve them.

  1. pvb says:

    Thanks, Monique.
    Nothing wrong with listening to customers to hear what they want, but don’t expect innovation (that’s the business owner’s job).
    Three cheers for using feedback for what it’s good for.
    Keep up the good work!


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