How to Listen to Your Customers

How to listen to your customers

“Listen to your customers” is one of the most repeated mantras in business. It’s also one of the most difficult and misinterpreted parts of product design and marketing. Depending on who you’re talking to, listening to your customers is either the way to go if you want to be successful or something that will ruin your chances of creating something exceptional.

When discussing innovation, people will get caught up in examples of Silicon Valley unicorns and Wall Street high-performers. Names like Apple, Uber, or Airbnb get thrown around a lot. Quotes from Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, and Mark Cuban start popping up. They all seem to be living proof of the idea that you shouldn’t be listening to your customers. That doing it will get you nowhere exciting.

There is no denying that the inside-out strategies of these companies have led them to create some of the most disruptive products in history. It’s how Google Search, the iPhone, and the Model T were born. No amount of customer research would have resulted in an idea like Facebook or Whatsapp. What’s also true is that this type of thinking has led to plenty of failures. For every iPod success story, there are dozens of failed Amazon Fire Phones.

The flip side to this is that companies see products created almost to the exact specifications of their customers also fail. Why is this? It’s paradoxical that something that has been designed to be liked could end up being unsuccessful. Why do companies that listen to their customers get trapped in “Product Death Cycles”? The answer still lies in the “listen to your customer” part. The failure is not a lack of customer input but in not asking the right questions and then applying their answers in the wrong way.

The Product Death Cycle happens when companies confuse pleasing customers with satisfying their needs. Image credit: David Bland.

Customers Are Not Product Designers

The first thing that people get wrong about listening to their customers is believing that they will provide them with breakthrough ideas. This is a big mistake. Listening to your customers is about gaining insight into who they are and what they value. It should never be about delegating the task of product design to them. If you don’t already have an idea, don’t expect your customers to lead to a great one.

People are bad at explaining what they want and predicting their future behavior. Most are not practiced in the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that innovation requires and have trouble coming up with novel ideas. Your customers are just that: your customers. They are not designers, engineers, or product managers and it’s not their job to think like one of them.

In ‘The Lean Product Playbook’, Dan Olsen explains the difficulties that people have when discussing hypothetical benefits. “The reality is”, he writes, “that customers are much better at giving you feedback in the solution space. If you show them a new product or design, they can tell you what they like and don’t like…Having solution space discussions with customers is much more fruitful than trying to explicitly discuss the problem space with them”.

It seems that Steve Jobs was right after all: people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. It’s difficult for customers to guess whether they’ll like a hypothetical solution in the future. They can, however, provide useful feedback when presented with a product that they can experience first-hand.

Pay attention to what customers do, not what they say

Listening to your customers is also an opportunity to observe them. Remember: people are bad at predicting whether something will be valuable for them or not. They’ll say that they like something and once the idea has been integrated into a product, realize that it’s of no use to them anymore. Humans are notorious for saying one thing and then doing a different one. This is why it’s best to not pay too much attention to what people say as to what they do.

Observing how people interact with your product will also help you ensure that it’s working as planned and help you refine it. It can reveal new problems and pain points that you hadn’t thought about before. Identifying new pain points and then coming up with solutions to them is a much better gamble at creating successful products than entrusting product design to a group of people that know nothing about it. Intuit, Twitter, and Yelp have all pivoted into better products after making adjustments based on observations of user behavior.

Pinterest is another example of a company that found success by taking a close look at how customers were using its product. On its first iteration, Pinterest was a mobile app named Tote that allowed people to shop multiple websites from a single platform. It had a unique feature for creating, saving, and sharing lists of products from vendors on the app. A year into its launch, Tote had plenty of users but few were making purchases. While trying to figure out what the problem was, the app’s creators observed that people were using it for something other than shopping. They were taking advantage of the “favorites’’ feature to compile collections of items and then share them with friends. They recognized an opportunity in this and flipped Tote into Pinterest: a platform for creating and sharing collections that now has over 440 million active users.

Tote’s ‘Share’ feature became so popular with its users that it let its creators to develop an app dedicated to creating collections and sharing them. Earlier this year, Pinterest added a shopping feature that echoes its first iteration as a shopping app.

Had Pinterest’s founders gone up to customers and asked them what they wanted they would have probably gotten caught in a product death cycle. People would’ve asked for things like more vendors, coupons, or shipping discounts. This would have done little to improve their sales because that wasn’t the reason why they were low. People weren’t using Tote for purchases because, at the time, that was a very difficult thing to do on mobile devices. The technology for mobile payments was still in its infancy. The founders would’ve gotten stuck trying to make Tote work at a time in which the technology available couldn’t support their product.

Listening to your customers does not mean giving up your creative vision

Another common misconception is that listening to customers means giving up creative vision. Brands centered on being “creative” or “disruptive” are especially wary of integrating customer input into their production process. To them, it means exchanging innovation for lukewarm results that are ‘just right’ but never anything more than that.

This goes back to the idea of seeing customer research as delegating product development to customers. The purpose of talking to your customers is not to ask them what to do but to get a better understanding of what’s valuable to them. You talk to your customers so that you can better inform your problem space, understand who it is that you are working for, and to make sure that you don’t lose touch with their needs.

Innovation alone doesn’t guarantee success. If people do not understand the value you are offering and you do not understand how to bring that value to them, your ideas will likely wind up as commercial flops. This is why design thinking and get-out-of-the-building approaches that emphasize listening to users have proven to be a lifeline for innovative companies. They help them ensure that their ideas will gain enough acceptance to succeed.

Airbnb was saved from the brink of failure when it started listening to its users. A year into its launch, the company’s team was having problems getting people to book rooms on their platform. Revenue was almost nonexistent and they were close to going bust. In a bid to figure out what was going on, the team decided to go into their hosts’ homes. It turned out that their great idea was being held back by the silliest of things: hosts were posting low-quality images of rooms and customers weren’t confident in booking them because they looked sketchy. Airbnb’s hosts weren’t professional hoteliers, photographers, or marketers. They didn’t understand the importance of good-looking, well-lit images for attracting guests. Once the team posted better images on their platform, revenue improved immediately. Getting out from behind their screens and talking to their users saved their innovative idea from failing because of bad photos.

A better way to listen to your customers

So what does “listening to your customers” mean, then? How do you find that sweet spot between listening to your users without diluting your ideas or sacrificing creative vision? Here are a few points to keep in mind:

  1. Understand your customers’ limitations
  • Customers are great at telling you where they want to go but not how to get there. Do not rely on them for ideas.
  • Talk to them in the solution space and use the data you gather there to inform your problem space.

2. Ask better questions and observe more

  • Don’t look for product ideas, look for pain points.
  • Ask your customers what they would like to do, not what they want. Inquire about the difficulties they experience when performing a task or achieving a result.
  • Observe them using your product or doing similar tasks to identify pain points and potential opportunities

3. Apply your findings selectively

  • You don’t have to apply all the feedback that you received and not every pain point is worth addressing.
  • Use what you learned to inform your problem space and make changes only after analyzing whether they will truly improve your product.
  • Don’t stifle your team’s creative direction by using customer feedback to set rigid parameters.

Conclusion

Listening to customers does not mean allowing them to control your creative vision. It means using their input to inform your ideas and set a bar for your creative process. Ultimately, it’s about making sure whether it will all be worth it in the end. It’s about figuring out whether people want your ideas and if those ideas will be feasible from a business standpoint.

Design isn’t just creating beautiful things — it’s also about creating value. The best way to bring value to your customers is by understanding them. Never lose sight of your users and what you are creating for them. If you are not thinking about them, then who are you designing for?

Creative Technology Studio | Building world-class digital experiences