Don’t Listen To Customers, Understand Them

There’s an interesting article in BusinessWeek about how innovation requires executives to periodically step back from three things: “decision attitudes,” “users,” and “your assumptions.” I really like this quote from Sir Denys Lasdun, the English architect, saying that the architect’s job is to give a client:

Not what he wants but what he never dreamed that he wanted; and when he gets it, he recognizes it as something he wanted all the time.

My take: In a previous post, I discussed the power of an approach called “deliberation without attention.” The idea is similar; step back and let your mind process information in a different way. It’s particularly valuable technique for complex situations. Executives definitely need to learn when to step back and reassess a situation or a decision.

While stepping back from “decision attitudes” and “your assumptions” makes intuitive sense, the idea of stepping back from “users” may seem to conflict with customer-centric behavior. But it really doesn’t.

Breakthrough innovations often address needs that customers can’t articulate with solutions that customers can’t imagine. So customers feedback can not be used to define the requirements. Does this mean that innovation is devoid of customers? No!

Instead of looking at direct responses to questions, breakthrough innovations often require a different type of customer input: Observation. Companies need to understand the core needs and desires of target customers through ethnographic techniques and through observations about larger trends in society (like the rise in social networking) to extrapolate (and hypothesize) what type of offering may “click” with those customers.

Customer feedback plays a very important role in fine-tuning the offering. Once prototypes of the solutions exist, companies need to observe (not just survey) how target customers use them. Keep in mind that customers’ first reaction to those offerings may not be nearly as important as their feelings after using them for a while.

The bottom line: Breakthrough innovations require understanding customers, not listening to them.

Written by 

I am an experience management transformist, helping organizations improve business results by engaging the hearts and minds of their customers, employees, and partners. My "job" is Head of the Qualtrics XM Institute. The Institute is still being established, but our goal is to help organizations around the world thrive by mastering Experience Management (XM). As part of this focus, I examine strategy, culture, interaction design, customer service, branding and leadership practices. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum. Prior to joining Qualtrics, I was managing partner of Temkin Group (leading CX research, advisory, and training firm), co-founder and chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA.org), and a VP at Forrester Research. I'm a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey. Check out my LinkedIn profile: www.linkedin.com/in/brucetemkin

16 thoughts on “Don’t Listen To Customers, Understand Them”

  1. I totally agree with this. I used to work at Cooper (Cooper.com) and am now working in Customer Experience Management. One great tool I use to make that leap from listening to understanding is to use Contextual inquiry (related to ethnographic research) THEN use Personas to encapsulate all those seemingly “soft”, “non-actionable” date collected into a tool able to generate (with Context scenarios) “actionable” design information to improve the experience customers get when interacting with my company.

    One critical aspect for all this to work is time….the brain needs time to deliberate without attention. That does not mean that you need to give your employees time off but there needs to be some delay between customer research and the production of actionable design information. You need the right business culture that will allow enough time for the “diamonds” to form from the atoms of carbon collected and contrary to my analogy, (time) pressure is not the right way of accomplishing that.

  2. Marketing Gurus will tell you to think about your customers from when you brush your teeth in the morning to when you brush your teeth at night.

    Not only will your customers appreciate your understanding of them, but they will also enjoy your exquisite hygiene and bright smile!

  3. Hi Bruce

    My thoughts are that this represents the real need for a separation of the customer service teams and those who determine the customer experience.

    Customer experience is more than just focussing on what people say whilst on the phone, it’s requires a complete operational shift that looks at every customer touch point.

    Great article

    Elizabeth Sealey

  4. Great article. I agree with you totally on the importance of observation of the customer (user) and of larger trends in society for understanding what the customer (both client and user) want / need. I would say that customer feedback (both client and user) ALONE can not be used to define requirements. The questions should be focused on the problems that have to be solved or the goals the customer wants to accomplish. Unfortunately, in my experience customers are often asked for, or voluntarily provide, the “solution” they want.

  5. Elizabeth: I agree; customer service groups can’t be on the hook alone for customer experience, they are responsible for only one piece of the experience. And they don;t even control the experience that they deliver. It’s impossible for a customer service organization to deliver consistenly good experiences if the systems are bad, the processes are broken, the business rules are messed up, etc.

    Collette: I’ve seen many companies lose sight of the fact that customers CAN NOT design your products. That’s why I think the new concept “crowdsourcing” is over-hyped.

    Keep up the dialogue!

  6. Hi Bruce I finally got round to reading your two excellent recommended articles. The 6 New Management Imperatives and The 4 Key Ingredients Of Great Organizations. I think in these articles you have identified both the issues and the opportunities on offer to forward thinking organisations today. Specifically: 1) there are huge opportunities to rethink how we deal with customers; and 2) success requires challenging the status-quo within firms. My team and I are working on a project that we hope will help in these two areas. I would very much like to discuss our project with you, once our working beta site is operational c. mid March

  7. Hi Bruce

    I’m not sure the real divide is between listening and understanding. I think it’s more about appropriate selection of research tools and techniques. If the only tool available is a 3″ X 5″ customer comment card it won’t matter how hard we ‘listen’. Similarly, there are situations where an ethnographic study just isn’t the right tool for the job.

    As researchers, we owe our organizations or clients guidance on the most (cost-)effective way to get the input we need for decision making.

    Sometimes that’s a very brief satisfaction questionnaire a la Net Promoter. Sometimes it’s a much more involved study.

  8. I think listening and understanding a customer go hand in hand. To better understand a client you need to listen to their feedback or wants and needs. Thanks for this article, there was plenty of good advice in this article. Thank you

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