Listening To Customers May Not Be Customer-Centric

Listening to Customers must be good. Clearly it’s much better than Not Listening To Customers. However Kathy Sierra in her blog, Creating Passionate Users, has a most though-provoking item, Listening to users considered harmful?

Kathy Sierra was most struck by meeting Pat Parelli, the founder of a hugely successful, multi-million dollar company that is involved in Natural Horsemanship. As she says, “His company is one of the few we’ve found that does virtually everything on our “reverse-engineering passion” checklists, without having first waited for the fans to do it themselves”. What caused her to think was this remark from Pat Parelli: “No, listening to our members was maybe 20% of it, but the other 80% was something else.” He then goes on to say that they know better than their customers what will give the best customer experience.

It goes back to that old concept in logical thinking of a Necessary condition as opposed to a Sufficient condition. Of course it’s necessary that you listen to your customers. But that isn’t sufficient to guarantee success. Something more is required. Being product-driven rather than customer-centric isn’t the answer. So where is the balance?

The problem with being customer-centric is that customers don’t necessarily know what is possible and so don’t know what to ask for. Also customers suffer from ‘cognitive dissonance’ that tends to make you feel comfortable with what you’ve bought rather than over-critical. Even if you’re mildly dissatisfied, you may not choose to raise it with the supplier ‘when it’s not a big thing’.

Despite all this, the customer-centric approach must be right. So how do you work with this concept. Well it requires that you try to put yourself in the shoes of the customer and see what the company offers from that point of view. You should try to think like the most critical and demanding customer. However do not assume knowledge about the company that such a customer would not have.

Indeed the best design exercise might be to try to think like a very smart competitor who is trying to use the customer-centric viewpoint about your product in order to build his own product that will be much better for customers. The advantage of this role-playing is that such a smart competitor will not believe any of your company statements that are not well supported. If one of your customers could be equally well informed and critical, then that would be a customer to listen to.

So although listening to customers will certainly not be harmful, go beyond that with a really searching customer-centric analysis of your products and services. You and your customers will be the better for it.