News Flash: You Have to Observe and Listen to Customers to Create Great Products

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by: John Caddell

Yesterday's New York Times business section featured an article describing a hedge fund, a design firm and a software maker who found success by carefully watching and listening to customers, interpreting their input, and using that information to guide their investment decisions/design choices/marketing decisions.

It seemed very insightful when I read it. Yet, after reflecting on it overnight, it seems, well…


So let's leave the article, which is well worth reading in its entirety, for the moment and discuss this: why is it so rare that companies observe customers closely and, even rarer, use that information to improve what they do?

Basically, it comes down to an issue of trust. Designers, executives, etc., trust their judgment more than they trust their customers'. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert, in his New York Times essays, has touched on this more than once. People overvalue their own opinions and undervalue those of others (especially those who lack comparable expertise).

The QuickBase example referenced in the Times article is interesting. The product, a software-as-a-service offering, was created for individuals and small businesses. After rolling it out, Quicken found that the target customer base was not interested in the product. Instead, small workgroups at midsize and large corporations were using it. (A neat thing about SaaS, from a marketer's perspective, is that who's using a product, and which features they're using, is easily tracked.)

Here would be the typical marketing response to that information. "Something's wrong. Let's work HARDER to convince the target market to buy the product. Let's add some more features and perhaps they'll grow to love it." Rather, Quicken did something sensible but rare–they revised their marketing approach to target the customers who found value in the product.

The smartest thing the marketers did was to rethink their views when faced with contrary evidence. Perhaps we can all enhance this skill. It's called humility.

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