When You Should Never Listen to Your Customers

Rob Enderle

Mark Cuban has a new post up but I think he has the title wrong. His title is "Why You Should NEVER Listen to Your Customers". If you do that, you'll quickly be without customers. However, the real point of his piece is right on and explains why Steve Jobs avoids most focus groups like the plague. It comes down to the very real fact that most customers don't know what they want in a new product, and that product development should focus on your view of the future, developing alternative offerings should target that view, and testing should be used to determine which of your choices is the easiest to market.


Asking a customer what a future product should be is like asking a blind person to pick their favorite color. In both cases, the answer, while interesting, is largely worthless. This is true of naming as well. It amazes me how many companies go out with a new name and come back with studies that seem to support what the people doing the study proposed. There is a cause and effect here, and it isn't that studies lead to better names. It's that folks tend to manipulate studies to get the answers they want.


Let's talk about why customers are clueless when it comes to new products and names.


iPad Example


Whether the iPad is a success or failure is still in dispute as I write this. It looks like Apple may have already realized that the initial offering might be too large and too expensive. Had it gone to focus groups with a prototype, it likely would have ended up with something much closer to what the Microsoft tablet was last decade. Focus groups likely would have resulted in an iPad that was more expensive, heavier, more capable, and basically a laptop without a keyboard or with a swivel screen or a me-too product that wouldn't have had people lining up at all.


Instead, Apple defined the product along the lines of past successes (thin, relatively light, moderately exclusive, simple to use) and then convinced people that this was the product they must have. They will undoubtedly sell millions more of this product than having customers help design it.


Why Doesn't Customer Focus Work for Names and Products?


If you look at what makes Apple different from other vendors, you can derive an answer to this question. Most vendors shotgun out products that have been focus-group tested in the hope that volume and choice will effectively cover their potential audience and capture the customer. As with a shotgun, a massive amount of product misses and the cost of doing this keeps marketing budgets relatively low.


Apple, on the other hand, builds few products and uses marketing to drive customers to its offerings. This is more like fishing, where a single hook and bait are used to attract the fish, coupled with something that herds the fish towards the boat. This is why Apple is so much more financially successful; it is more effective to drive people to a few products that are specifically created to attract those people than to build lots of products with thin marketing budgets and smaller volumes.


Next page: Sometimes, It'll Work


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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Apr 9, 2010 12:50 PM a. asdf a. asdf  says:

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe the Apple tablet was born out of user requests. I remember Apple fans wanting a tablet before there were rumors Apple was going to even make one. From 2007;


And that's exactly what an iPad should have looked like.

Apr 10, 2010 10:23 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says: in response to a. asdf

And that is exactly not what they built.   Apple builds on their own agenda not on customer spec.   The iPad is a very different product, one that is more appliance than PC.  Users were asking for an Mac, they got an iPod. 

Apr 10, 2010 12:49 PM a. asdf a. asdf  says: in response to Rob Enderle

That's exactly what they should have built. If people had a choice between iPad and iMacPad, no one would have bought the iPad for the same price. The HP Slate already proves they could have made an iMacPad for around the same price. There's no reason why you can't put OSX on the HP Slate.

They only reason I see besides battery life for building an iPodPad is for the 50%+ profit margins. Wrapping up, Apple should have just gone into the car business and made an iCar.


Apr 11, 2010 12:37 PM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says: in response to a. asdf

But the point is that isn't how they do it and they have PC margins that HP would love to share.   Want to bet which company sells more tablets?   But I think you'll need to look at the 3rd or 4th generation product.   The iPad is clearly a work in progress at this point.


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