Does customer feedback really matter?

It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want” – Steve Jobs

The above comment from one of the most creative icons of modern time really kicks up this debate. If the brain behind one of the most successful innovative company in the world feels this way, why do companies spend billions of dollars in creating and maintaining mechanisms to get customer feedback.

Let’s try to take a deeper look into the merits of this issue. Let’s set a few criteria and see what we see in our day to day lives related to these:

Criteria 1: How many people can find faults in things?
An awful lot of people. Look at the movie critics and studio experts who hog the media studios these days and are so called experts on anything under the sky.

Criteria 2: How many people can actually suggest ways of improving things in an incremental manner?
A significant amount of people. They can throw in ideas such as the hero should have died in the climax, may be they should have released the product at Diwali or Christmas, may be that shape is very odd for a car of this size.

Criteria 3: How many people can actually suggest fundamental things or significant improvements?
The amount of people suddenly shrinks to a few. These people are usually technically strong people who understand the working of the product or the industry. They can talk about things such as Traffic demographics of a country necessitating significant changes in design of a vehicle, They can talk about the usage patterns of the consumers and suggest some significant improvements. In some very rare case, these inputs can even lead to the development of a new variant of the product.

Criteria 4: How many people can suggest disruptive changes or something that out of the box innovative solution?
Now the choice goes down to a handful of people. These are the select few who can not only see what exists, but see the future possibilities and can see and process the emerging trends and predict the needs of tomorrow. They are also technically competent to understand technologies involved and the challenges of trying to fulfill these needs. Wonderful!! But are these people generally available in the customer feedback net? Most of these will not be available to give free feedback as they are sharp enough to understand the value of what they know!! They are the real thought leaders and have significantly different mindset to not only question what exists, but also answer what is needed.

So essentially if a customer feedback net processes feedback from 100 individuals, it is highly possible it finds 50-60% people in Criteria 1, around 20-25% people in Criteria 2, around 5-10% people in Criteria 3, but it will be highly lucky if it would be able to find even 1 person who satisfies Criteria 4. Due to this, most of the changes or feedback that you receive from such a feedback net is either just incremental ones or changes that are very near sighted without any vision into the future.

Steve Jobs tries to explain this exact thing in his more detailed comment on the subject: “You can’t just ask the customers what you want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” Also imagine how this works, if a movie maker asks the audience what they want to see in each scene and makes a movie exactly as the audience tells him, how much will be the interest level of the audience to watch the actual movie!!

So the next natural question is should we then just ignore any customer feedback? Should we just lock ourselves in a room and come up with an product idea and make it and release to the customers?

Again, Steve Jobs comes up with two interesting quotes to answer that question:

#1 “A lot of the times, people do not know what they want until you show it to them.

#2 “Get closer than ever to your customers. So close that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves.

In my dealings with my customers as a product analyst, I often find that they have a general idea of what they want, without knowing exactly what they want. Some others know exactly what they want, but do not have an idea of how they want it. Have you ever gone for shopping a product where you were not really sure of what you wanted and suddenly you see a product that seems to tell you exactly what you want and how to do it. Suddenly it all seems to make sense. This phenomena is exactly what Jobs is highlighting in his first statement. By all means hear your clients and customers, but take the solutions they may suggest with a pinch of salt. For all you know, they might not know what they need or how to make that happen.

The second statement is much more profound and this is where the customer feedback is really essential. It is not important to hear and do what they ask for. It is more important to understand what they do, how they do and what is their problem. For all you know, the problem they state might be a symptom or a side-affect of something that is a completely different problem. Imagine if the healthcare industry would have worked such that the customer (patient) goes to the doctor and says I am having head-ache give me a pill!! A good doctor would ask a few other questions to reach the real root cause of the problem to treat. So the real form of customer feedback is more an understanding of what is required for a customer by understanding what he or she does and what are practical issues that they have to face.

Once, you have understood the basic requirements of the customer, the innovations can start to kick in, but again the customer experiences need to be factored in. Steve Jobs has one more succinct quote in this regard “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology“. In more layman’s terms the technology you use to provide the solution to the customer is immaterial. If it can meet the experience that the customer needs, then it is great technology, else it is not!! Another way to look at the comment is that before deciding the technology, decide on what experience the customer needs, and then select the suitable technology. Alas, a lot of companies go the other way by first deciding the technology and then finding out that it is inadequate to provide the customer with the experience needed, so start to build in hacks to overcome these inadequacies. By the time the complete product is engineered if falls way short of what it set off for!!

Finally to summarize, Customer feedback is a valuable input to the innovation cycle that would deliver the product, but it is neither the only input nor is it the most important input. More important is the engagement with the customer in understanding the workflows, the day to day working, the innate understanding of the pain points of the customer and the experience the customer craves for, all of which can only come when we engage with the customer in a more closer manner.

So next time a product manager or a marketing guy comes to your desk and says this is what the customer wants in the product, you know how to react!! 🙂


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