Over the past three decades, dozens of books, magazine articles, and blog posts have been written about the importance of listening to customers. Becoming more customer focused is now a critical strategic objective for many companies, and listening to the "voice of the customer" is seen as an essential ingredient in the recipe for success.
Marketers often have the primary responsibility for gathering, analyzing, and extracting insights from customer input. So, it's important for them to understand that listening to customers in the right way can valuable, while listening in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons is a bad idea.
Companies often seek customer input in order to develop products or services that customers will buy. However, many companies still struggle to develop new solutions that resonate with potential buyers. Of course, a new product or service sometimes fails because a company hasn't listened enough to its customers. But just as often, the failure occurs because the company listens to customers in the wrong way and for the wrong purposes.
In the typical scenario, companies ask their customers what they want and encourage them to describe specific product or service features that would be desirable. The problem is that most customers aren't well suited to perform this task.
Most customers have a limited frame of reference. Like all human beings, most of what they know is based on their past experiences. This means that customers can do a fairly good job of describing what they want when they're asked about familiar products or services. However, when customers are asked to imagine or describe new products or services, they usually encounter what psychologists call "functional fixedness." This is the normal human tendency to fixate on the way a product or service is normally used or on the features and attributes a product or service normally possesses.
Functional fixedness can make it almost impossible for people to imagine new features or functions. In short, most customers have great difficulty describing products or services they've never experienced. As a result, customers often describe features or functions that offer only modest improvements over what already exists. As Henry Ford is credited with saying, "If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse."
The key to listening to customers the right way is to shift the focus from specific features or functionality to desired outcomes. Customers may not be particularly good at describing specific solutions, but with a little prodding, they can usually do a great job of describing what they want to accomplish and what problems they face.
Focusing customer input on desired outcomes enables you to understand what customers really value, and this will help you design solutions that customers will be anxious to buy. The outcomes-based approach places the responsibility for designing the solutions squarely on your shoulders. That's where the responsibility should be since you, and not your customers, are best suited to perform this task. So by all means, don't stop listening to your customers. Just be sure you are listening in the right way and with the right objectives.