Voice of the customer

Some companies —such as Aardvark and last year’s TEM case on Dropbox — that otherwise pride themselves on user-centric design were adamant about not offering the features most frequently requested by their users. What’s going on here? When should vision override user feedback in a lean startup?

By Alexandria DeVito

Recently, I was challenged with this question in my own business. We launched an online e-commerce platform and within days, several customers requested additional products and functionality. Obviously, I wanted to fulfill their requests. We are a new business. We want to gain traction and credibility. We want to create a full product suite that people love. However, my astute co-founder helped me realize that I was getting way ahead of myself.

So, when is it appropriate to listen to customers and when is it appropriate to bypass their feedback, if ever?

There seem to be two main components to this question:

1. Does the customer truly know what they want?

There are many quotes on this topic; two of the most famous are:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” – Henry Ford
A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” – Steve Jobs

It seems to me that these two quotes are referencing situations of blank sheet innovation. It is probably not surprising to most that the average American could not conceptualize the mass-market car or the iPod prior to its unveiling. Even in our session earlier this week, Mark Roberge from HubSpot remarked that “customers are not good innovators.”

However, I think it would be a mistake to end the discussion here. It is important to distinguish between what customer feedback can and cannot provide. Vivek Wadhwa captures this distinction well, noting “They know what their problems are, what they like, and what they don’t need. But they don’t know what you can develop for them that they really want.”

The gap here is about present pain / challenges / constraints versus future potential / possibility. A customer will be well-steeped in their own experiences, limitations and roadblocks. And while these challenges might be incredibly palpable to them, they might not know how to solve them. This may occur for several reasons: first, they might not fully understand their problem; second, they might not be aware of all of the options available to them; and third, the known solutions might not meet their criteria (e.g., price).

That’s where you come in. In these instances, it is important to listen, but also to read between the lines. There is a clear difference between asking and understanding; more importantly, though, there is a difference between an articulated want and an underlying need. It is your job to get past the articulated want to the root cause of their issue and to find out the real problem they are experiencing.

In the book Rapid Sales Success, one of the main tenets is to “sell them what they want and deliver what they want and need.”  

2. If the customer does know what they want, are there still situations where vision should supercede feedback?

The lean start-up methodology focuses on validated learning, experimentation and iteration. It is about developing quick but representative prototypes, gathering core insights, making adjustments…and then rinsing and repeating. Customer feedback is absolutely critical to this methodology.

Even Steve Jobs listened. Despite the above quote, he made his email address available to the public for comments and criticism. As we know, though, he was the ultimate decision maker. Taking feedback is one thing; whether you act on every piece of feedback is a different story. Not all customer feedback is created equal.

It seems that two principles could override implementing customer suggestions.

First, it seems that customer feedback is most valuable for refinement and validation, rather than innovation.
Daniel Pink wrote about the perils of giving people what they want, stating that “Enhancing a category is cool; creating a category is cooler. Providing people what they want is a smart tactic; giving people something they didn’t know they’re missing is an even smarter strategy. Listening to the customer can be helpful; listening to your own voice can be revolutionary.”

In this way, customer feedback can be a form of consulting and it is up to the business visionary to structure and translate that feedback into something meaningful / profitable for the company.

Second, particularly at the early stages, fulfilling customer feedback can cause undue distraction or investment. In these situations, it can be necessary to defer.

Practically speaking, certain operational and logistical challenges may prevent early-stage adjustments. There is also the question of limited management bandwidth to run several product lines at once. The lean-startup is about focused testing.

In our case, we are still in the early days. We are still testing product / market fit. We are still determining the core value proposition for our customers. Adding products and functionality would expand our offering to include bells and whistles before we even know whether the core offering is viable. If a short-term adjustment has the potential to interfere with the long-term viability of the company, then it is important to reconsider the decision.

Making a customer happy may be different from giving them what they want. Often, you have to believe in both the company’s and the customer’s higher goal by focusing on long-term vision over short-term relief.


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