Know Your Customer…. but Don’t Ask Your Customer

 Ron Neumann

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Henry Fordfasterhorsefinal2

This is one of two famous quotes from successful entrepreneurs I think share a theme that provides valuable business insight.  The other, Steve Jobs’ quoted “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”  Both Steve and Henry knew that when it comes to innovation, customers’ opinions may not always have value, and could possibly take us down the wrong path.

Today, the “voice” of our customer has become more important than ever.  We have integrated it into our everyday business practices.  From social media to big data, organizations are making great investments in collecting customer information and capturing their opinions.  You only need to call any large customer service call centre to be asked to participate in an automated survey after your call, or purchase something at a retail store and be incented to go on-line to fill out a customer satisfaction survey.  Of course we all need to know how our customers think and feel about us and our products – we depend on getting that right.

So what’s the problem with asking customers for their opinion when it comes to creating an innovative solution?  The problem with customer input is it comes from their past experiences and their own perspective.  How individuals feel, think and act is shaped overtime by backgrounds, cultures, values, beliefs, biases and assumptions.  They can see forward from where they are, but they don’t understand the forces or insights that have gotten them where they are, or will carry them to the next generation solution.

For Henry he knew the human need for travel and progress was well beyond a faster horse and Apple knew they were not creating another mp3 player when they created the iPod.

This phrase sums it up perfectly; “we need to know our customers better than they know themselves”.  So how do we do this?  I think as Steve and Henry point out, the value is not in what customers’ say, but rather in understanding the insights that drive their behaviour.


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