Obsession with “Listening to Customers” Can Lead You Astray

Marketing and Sales Alignment

How often have you heard that the secret to good marketing is to thoroughly understand everything you can about your customers: who they are, their demographics, attitudes, habits, etc. However, this belief, like so much of conventional wisdom, may not be entirely accurate. In fact, a relentless focus on knowledge about customers may even be counterproductive.

People primarily buy from you not because of what you know about them, but rather because of what they know about you. The idea is to create top-of-mind awareness and thought leadership around your brand, thus making the buying process as easy and painless as possible. This is the essence of solid pull marketing.

Here are a few reasons you might consider spending less time listening to your customers:

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  1. Of course customers want you to listen, but what they really want is for you to meet their needs. This is why Apple has sold so many products, despite the fact that Steve Jobs supposedly didn’t listen to his customers.
  2. Knowing customers may not be enough. If you provide lousy products and services they probably won’t come back, regardless of how much you listened.
  3. Customers are already buying – you need to reach new audience segments. You want to keep your customers happy, but you also need to think about how to broaden your appeal to people or companies that look very different from current buyers.
  4. Customers can misguide your efforts because they usually want something similar to what they already have. For example, in the software industry, this often means enhancements to current features. While this is fine for today’s customer base, it may not be what new and lucrative customer segments require.

I read an interesting article on this subject on LinkedIn (courtesy of Gregory Ciotti), titled Why Steve Jobs Didn’t Listen to His Customers. As Jobs said, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” The point is that to lead in product design and delivery, you sometimes have to be in front of your customers, not behind them.

Another interesting quote in the article came from Mario D’Amico, senior VP of marketing at Cirque du Soleil: “Any innovative company struggles with how much to listen to customers. Most realize that you cannot trust them to tell you what your next new product will be.” D’Amico argues that in industries where companies thrive on innovation, asking customers what they “want” actually does not improve a company’s competitive positioning.

Jobs and D’Amico make good points. Yes, it is important to listen to customers – I certainly keep in touch with the needs of our clients and try to use the lessons learned to continually improve our services. But you need to accomplish the business equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time – keeping in touch with the needs of current customers while getting out in front with offerings that will appeal to multiple segments – and being brave enough to solve some problems that your customers don’t even realize they have yet.

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