Why You Should NEVER Listen to Your Customers

An article by John Doerr had a great quote from technology luminary Alan Kay that every entrepreneur needs to remember “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

I’m working with a company that at one point had a product that was not only best in class, but also technically far ahead of its competition.  It created a better way of offering its service and customers loved it and paid for it. Then it made a fatal  mistake.  It asked its customers what features they wanted to see in the product and they delivered on those features. Unfortunately for this company, its competitors didn’t ask customers what they wanted. Instead, they had a vision of ways that business could be done differently and as a result better.  Customers didn’t really see the value or need, until they saw the product.  When they tried it , they loved it.

So what did my company do when they saw what their competitor had done ? They repeated their mistake and once again asked their customers what they wanted in the product. Of course the customer responded with features that they now loved from the other product.

They didn’t improve their competitive positioning. They put themselves in a never ending revolving door of trying to respond to customer requests. To make matters worse, resources and brainpower that could be applied to “inventing the future” were instead being used to catch up with features that locked them into the past.

Entrepreneurs always need to be reminded that its not the job of their customers to know what they don’t know. In other words, your customers have a tough enough time doing their jobs. They don’t spend time trying to reinvent their industries or how their jobs are performed. Sure, every now and then you come across an exception. But you can’t bet the company on your finding that person at one of your customers.

Instead, part of every entrepreneurs job is to invent the future. I also call it “kicking your own ass”. Someone is out there looking to put you out of business. Someone is always out there who thinks they have a better idea than you have. A better solution than you have. A better or more efficient product than you have.  If there is someone out there who can “kick your ass” by doing it better, its part of your job as the owner of the company to stay ahead of them and “kick your own ass” before someone else does.

Your customers can tell you the things that are broken and how they want to be made happen. Listen to them. Make them happy. But they won’t create the future roadmap for your product or service. That’s your job.

The best way to predict the future is to invent it.  Words that should always be part of your product or service planning.

73 thoughts on “Why You Should NEVER Listen to Your Customers

  1. Sometimes, the customer is right. I made a suggestion to Google to do more with it’s Sports section. Google Sports should be more like their Finance page. With stats, discussion forum and news on the sides. Ice Rocket should do the same. No one gets Sports done right on the net. Currently, the best site is Sports-Reference.com. But they lack a good news section, video, and discussions. Google/Ice Rocket or someone ought to do Sports right. A clean interface, stats, schedules, and scores upfront. Most of the others a users needs to click thru so many screens to find what they want.

    Comment by darryl3 -

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  6. Looks like someone just “re-posted” my comments from April 7th with HUMAN SPAM attached. See above post re:”Social Agreementing”

    Kewl!

    Bob Stephens
    Managing Partner
    2425 Ventures LLC / Dallas

    http://2425ventures.com/

    “Entrepreneurs Can Save The Planet”

    Comment by MediaEngineer -

  7. Yes Mark I definitely agree – we need to invent our own roadmaps = I am undertaking to promote an updated business model, a 21st century approach via “social agreementing”, creating formal collaborative alliances where the members can evolve to coalesce under the same tent in a newly organized joint venture. The new “mastermind” literally “regroups” to update its processes and plant itself on a firm foundation in preparation for survival of future economic downturns. http://www.cafepaylas.net/

    The members of the new “trust” first set out to update its processes and communications via the latest collaborative tools, cloud computing, automation technologies, implementing sound CSR and sustainability strategies.

    Via “social agreementing” we can begin to create the economic magnetism necessary to develop and open up new markets and innovation.

    As always thanks for the posts Mark!

    Comment by haruntt -

  8. Great post as usual…If you want a blog like Mark Cubans that you can update yourself real easily or a website for your business. Check out our process starting as low as $49!

    http://imoria.com/the-imoria-web-design-process

    Comment by imoria -

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  10. Our thoughts are the future. Ideas without plans, action and purpose simply dissipate into the ether and never become a part of the collective consciousness.

    Comment by mediaengineer -

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  12. “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

    Reminds me of back to the future III, if the future you invent is never realized, what happens? It’s difficult to predict which direction the collective consciousness will go. It helps to have vision as a CEO, though.

    Comment by blogmaverickmark -

  13. When I was a student journalist a wily old reporter gave me a great tip. “It’s not about recording what they say. You need to listen for what they mean.” Good lesson, applicable to much more than newspaper reporting.

    Comment by katefromwellington -

  14. Pingback: Don’t Listen To Your Clients, Really? « BurrellesLuce Fresh Ideas

  15. Pingback: New York Forum Blog » Blog Archive » The customer is always wrong

  16. the best way to predict the future is to ask Madame Zora at http://www.thewhatbox.com

    Comment by madamezora -

  17. Dear Mr. Cuban I know this is not the place to post this but I don’t see any better place to do so.

    my name is Steve Carls and I am an undergraduate at the University of Alaska Southeast. I am taking an Ethnohistory course and am conducting a qualitative study of the effects of early African Americans athletes’ entrance into the NBA on the players and on public perception of race relations.

    I was wondering if you could put me in contact with one of the early athletes that your franchise has a connection to, regardless of ethnicity, from the 1950’s-1960’s and ask them to answer a few questions for my project. The answers to the questions will never be published and will only be used for the purposes of the course that I am taking.

    If you would be so kind as to forward these questions to one of your former players or coaches from the generation I have requested it would be greatly appreciated. Please have any responses be e-mailed to me at Carlssteve@hotmail.com
    Athletes are welcome to remain anonymous; if an athlete chooses to keep his identity private it would be appreciated if they gave a general statement about the time frame that they played or coached in the NBA.

    Thank you for your time, sincerely
    Steve Carls

    Questionnaire

    1.) Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got into the NBA
    2.) Tell me about your experiences as a player
    3.) (For African American athletes) where you exposed to direct racism before joining the NBA? If so please describe the attitudes and treatment you received from other people because of your ethnicity.

    4.) (For African American athletes) Did you experience any direct racist attitudes from fans while you were playing basketball? Please describe your experiences.
    5.) (For African American athletes) Did peoples treat you differently when you were on the court then when you were out in the community? Please explain the differences if there were any.

    5.) (For African American athletes) Did playing professional basketball change the way people perceived you as an African American?

    6.) (For non African American players) Did playing with African American athletes change your perception of them?

    7.) (For non African American players) Did you witness any direct racist attitudes of fans while playing basketball, if so please describe them.

    8.) (For non African American players) Did people treat your African American teammates differently off the court then they did while they were playing?

    9.) Do you think that the integration of the NBA had a positive effect on the treatment of African Americans in the United States? If so how?

    10.) Did you see a change in your career in the attitudes towards African American people in the community?

    11.) Are there any issues with race relations in the realm of professional basketball that you think still need to be dealt with?

    Thank you and any respondents for your time
    -Steve

    Comment by carlssteve -

  18. Thanks for the John Doerr article Mark. I’ve re-posted on my entrepreneurship blog. http://2425ventures.com/ People like you, Doerr,Jobs,Suster,Calacanis,et al … TRULY INSPIRE THE REST OF US.
    The new iPad apps will be coming out of the woodwork. Thanks for all you do!

    Bob Stephens – Dallas

    Comment by mediaengineer -

  19. If your reading this, I would like you to visit my website.
    It’s the Shizzzzz.

    superwebblog.wordpress.com

    Comment by Elliott Morris -

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  21. Mark, I would love for you to link my new Mavs website: http://www.ChatMavs.com

    Comment by jtyoder2 -

  22. The customer never knows what they want until you show them what they don’t want => invent. However, it is cheaper to draw what they don’t want and only build what you can sell them.

    Comment by r1bennett -

  23. Pingback: davidvoegtle.net » Blog Archive » Daily links 04/13/2010

  24. Pingback: Listen to your customers, or ignore them? | Small Business Daily News, Blogs, Commentary

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  29. I’d love to build a big business. Getting funding and making connections with the right people is very difficult for me.

    I’ve been trying for awhile. I have some great information and I give it away freely hoping someone with see the potential. As an example. I discoverd from other people that there are buildings on the surface of the moon and there are ships up that as well. All the astronauts have seen the ships.
    There are ships that launch from earth, from Germany and they travel to the moon and mine helium2 which is being used in fusion reactors to produce a clean source of power.

    There are ships traveling to earth from other star systems. This is real and there is plenty of documentation from goverments around the world that it is occuring. I spent 2 months in Roswell,NM with a man who has seen these ships since the age of 7.
    He has even been inside some of the craft. It’s sounds like science fiction but it real and he is real. I lived in his house for 2 weeks with him and his wife when I ran out of cash to pay for my hotel room.
    His name is Clifford Stone. You can watch is video interviews online at Youtube.com He is a nice guy.

    Comment by kpurfield -

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  31. Very few people can lead. Mark is a proven leader. He has vision.

    Comment by LeRoy Young -

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  34. Mark,

    Sorry I am a little late to the conversation here.

    There is a clear distinction between asking your customers what they need to do or are trying to accomplish and asking them to create their own solution(s).

    I agree with this statement: “Then it made a fatal mistake. It asked its customers what features they wanted to see in the product and they delivered on those features.”

    The fatal mistake was not talking to and listening to customers. It was asking them the wrong question(s).

    As you point out, asking customers to create/design their own product/solutions in many ways is an admission of lack of insight, innovation, and vision on the part of the company.

    However, without knowing what your prospects and customers are trying to do – what problems they are trying to solve, why they are trying to solve them, and what impact these problems have on their lives or business operations, entrepreneurs are operating in the outdated industrial model of building something and hoping someone buys it. That era is rapidly moving into the history books.

    To your point, many customers don’t know what they need. They may not even know that they have a problem. This is where listening, observing, and (gasp) co-creating solutions come in.

    The companies who lead over the next 20 years will foster communities of innovation and will lead development processes by tapping not only internal expertise but also the expertise and input of their extended business eco-system.

    The context of your post also just focuses only on product development, omitting sales, marketing, and customer service and support. In an increasingly social world, not listening to your customers (and incorporating that feedback into corporate decisions) is a sure path to failure.

    Best regards,
    Brian

    Comment by brianvellmure -

  35. Pingback: The Customer is always right! Until they’re not! « Recruitment Marketing Innovation, Technology and Ideas

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  37. Totally wrong. Good business relations are only ever built up on trust between people. It is a truism to say that ” People don’t buy products – they buy people ” which means, relationships of mutuality. When you have a defined professional end in view, you then both work towards it, each from their end of things. Money is only the conduit/channel along which this mutuality passes. It is nothing in itself, despite all obsession. Money in the Lacanian schema is part of the symbolic world, a signifier, & an enabler. Its dual function thus points to what is being done through it ( = policy ), & what is excluded ( = preferences ). The customer/client is the point of application of knowledge & capability, an X-point through which essential feedback comes. If feedback is blocked, the circulation flow is impeded. Then there is only the application of unilateral force and the resulting resistance to that – by which means the whole process becomes an exercize in fraud and deception.

    Comment by leshy99 -

  38. Definitely thought provoking, but I would suggest misguided. Have you considered that it is about asking your customers the right questions? People are only experts in what they know and they cannot know the future. As such research should be about exploring their needs based on their current behaviors. I blogged about this just yesterday http://blog.usabilityone.com/2010/04/dispelling-myths-about-usability-design-by-committee/

    Comment by cgrayu1 -

  39. It would be nice if you could make a declarative statement like that and it was true. But like most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I’m sure you can come up with just as many examples (and probably more) of a company succeeding because they listened to what their customers wanted, and integrated those features into the next “upgrade.”

    I mean, if you create every product with blinders on, unaware of your customers needs, how long are you going to last?

    Comment by carsonreeves1 -

  40. You just described why Apple has been so successful in recent years. If they would have listed to their “customers” (most of who aren’t actual customers and have no intention of ever buying their products), the iPhone would have a physical keyboard, get bogged down by too many apps running in the background, etc. In other words, it would be just another crappy smartphone. And the iPad would be a full-blown tablet version of the Macbook…that very, very few people would actually buy because it’s been shown time and time again that tablet computers running a desktop OS + bolted on pen or touch layer just don’t work well. Apple doesn’t listed to its customers, instead it builds what THEY think is useful/good.

    Comment by tcervo -

  41. It’s not unlike those commercials for medications for things you didn’t know were illnesses. “Have ugly toenails? We’ve got this pill for you!”

    Instead of trying to solve a customer’s problem that exists, you can inform them of a problem they didn’t know was there – then give them the solution for it as well.

    Create a need and you create a market.

    Comment by ciaoenrico -

  42. This is not a new thought and typically comes from those who don’t understand how to “listen” to their customer, or, as is often true, to anyone for that matter.

    Of course you don’t just ask a customer what they want but you can learn about them and then use that knowledge to invent what they might want to buy.

    Platitudes about kicking one’s own ass are fine but Mr. Cuban did not build his successful business on that alone.

    Comment by wmatthies -

  43. Mark, as always, thought provoking and in many ways true. But you missed a few points – like when customer insights can absolutely build your business. I wrote a “reply” on my blog here http://cisjustaletter.com/2010/04/07/listening-to-your-customers-yes-for-increments-no-for-big-ideas/

    thanks for making us all thing

    Comment by annmariestone -

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  45. It has been mentioned a few times already, but the second that you start letting your customers manage your business, you are doomed.

    Customers think they know what they want, but you can track what they use. For example, I work for a hotel and when you get some folks that want to hold an event and want it to be “green”.

    Then, the event takes place, the room is too hot, the materials to make it “green” are too expensive, and all hell breaks loose when we are going over the invoice.

    This is just one example, and I am sure all of the different businesses represented have their own applications, but as soon as you give management decisions to your customers, you are pretty much screwed. Let them take their brilliant ideas and start their own company.

    RSJ

    Comment by remembersammyjankis -

  46. WHEN YOU’RE KICKED IN THE ASS!
    YOU’RE OUT IN FRONT !!

    Comment by mediaengineer -

  47. I like the metaphor idea of ‘kicking your own ass’ but NEVER is a very strong word when it comes to listening to your customers. Wary yes. And don’t ask questions you don’t want the answer to.

    Comment by markkolier -

  48. I love calling this “kicking your own ass”. Wish I had thought of that. What you’re saying, I think, you have to anticipate what your competitors are going to do in response to what you have done – same thing that a coaching staff in football or basketball does, or like a successful chess player who can plan many, many moves ahead, with options based on his competitor’s response. The opponent is your competitor, not your customer. The same thing applies in service businesses, also. How many times have you run into companies that you do business with, but they treat you, as a customer, like a problem, rather than a player on their team. encountering a lousy CS Rep, or Tech Support Rep, who tells me everything I have done wrong, rather than help me make their product work, just wants me to go find their competitor.

    Comment by P Todd Kelly -

  49. Yes Mark I definitely agree – we need to invent our own roadmaps = I am undertaking to promote an updated business model, a 21st century approach via “social agreementing”, creating formal collaborative alliances where the members can evolve to coalesce under the same tent in a newly organized joint venture. The new “mastermind” literally “regroups” to update its processes and plant itself on a firm foundation in preparation for survival of future economic downturns. http://wp.me/pIxN5-41

    The members of the new “trust” first set out to update its processes and communications via the latest collaborative tools, cloud computing, automation technologies, implementing sound CSR and sustainability strategies.

    Via “social agreementing” we can begin to create the economic magnetism necessary to develop and open up new markets and innovation.

    As always thanks for the posts Mark!

    Comment by mediaengineer -

  50. Pingback: Quote :: Invent the future … ::Why You Should NEVER Listen to Your Customers « blog maverick : On the 8 Spot

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  54. I’d say it a bit differently… you should LISTEN to your customers to learn about PROBLEMS and you should deliver the solutions. Don’t ask customers for solutions. That’s your job.

    Comment by jspujji -

  55. I’m a faithful reader of your blog and think you have a lot of important things to say. Your bombast tone reminds me of The Cluetrain Manifesto book from the late 90’s, but you don’t seem to give customers as much credit as they do. Markets are conversations where they posit that companies not belonging to a community of discourse will die.

    I think it’s agreed, though, that opportunity arises from rapid technological changes…and these changes create a bunch of customer pain that needs healing. Change also reveals inefficiencies and gaps in the market that aren’t necessarily filled by innovation for innovation’s sake. Depending on a company’s market, margin and mission, it might make better sense to be a second-mover in an industry, especially if there are inadequate resources to deal with explosive growth of an earth-shattering innovative product. Too much, too fast can be just as devastating as not enough. Ultimately what will make a company successful is having an intentional culture flexible enough to react to these changes in a way that is consistent with the vision.

    Comment by straightcutjib -

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  57. Mark, I think you overestimate your audience.

    If the reader really does know how to “to reinvent [their customers'] industries or how their jobs are performed”, then sure. I agree.

    If they don’t (and my point is that many entrepreneurs don’t), then it’s folly.

    In other words, if you are brilliant, and understand all of the rules for an industry and why those rules came about, then you’ll know how to productively break them, and need not listen to those who tell you you can’t.

    But that is an awfully high bar for most entrepreneurs.

    The argument also assumes that all customer input on moving a product forward is equally worthy, or to his point, worthless.

    I’ll argue 7 days a week that critical listening is going to be a better strategy long-term. Listen to anyone with an open mind, but then apply your mastery of their industry and make distinctions as to whether their input has merit, and discard that which doesn’t.

    Comment by rrdevine -

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  59. Listen to their problems, not their solutions.

    Comment by wackywebname -

  60. “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘A faster horse'”. – Henry Ford……….Sometimes it pays to have a little vision….:) Nice post, Mark.

    Comment by Marc -

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  62. You should never ask your customers anything. Asking is for someone who doesn’t know how to collect data on customers’ usage (that is, what they actually do).

    Techniques like bucket-testing and analytics can help you to discover which features your customers use most often, which ones they don’t, and which customers fall into which group.

    Your customer experience is obviously important, but don’t hand the reigns over to Joe or Jane user. Instead, do your research, be courageous about risk-taking by using bucket tests, and pore over data to see what’s working and what’s not.

    Comment by mccallcl -

  63. Mark,
    I don’t fully agree with your post this time.
    Asking your customers is not always wrong. It just depends on
    a) what kinds of questions you aks
    b) at what stage of the development process you ask them and
    c) what kind of product or services you are offering.

    Let me illustrate this:

    a) Never ask questions that can be answered with something like “I want more of that”. Henry Ford was right when he said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Asking silly questions like “what features do you want?” does not make sense. But getting an understanding of the needs, the usage situation, the interactions and maybe even the tech savvyness of your customers is a good thing, even if it sounds pretty much like text book.
    b) The worst time to ask is when you are half way through the development process. You can ask before you start the development (see above) to gain some interesting insights that may help you to be creative or just before you launch a product or service to give you some tactical insights that can help in the launch phase. The problem is that most people become insecure half way through the development. They see the new stuff the competitors did, got used to their idea and feel that it all takes too long. They think that asking the customers would help to fight insecurities, but it does not. It rather creates more.
    c) For some products or services, customers value or even expect to be integrated into the new product development activities. In those cases asking them questions is already part of the sales process.

    Comment by businessgametime -

  64. I think Mark’s post tries to blur an important distinction.

    From the point of view of innovation I’d agree that you shouldn’t ask your customers to cut your meat for you.

    But most of the “listen to your customers” talk out there is said from a marketing perspective, and those people seem to me pretty enlightened. It matters what your customers are saying to other potential customers, and any business that doesn’t take advantage of the 2.0 chance to ease-drop and damage control and engage customers about their product experience is dumb.

    Comment by jfhst18 -

  65. I appreciate this post, buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut…

    There’s a big difference between asking your customers to predict the future (or even their own behavior – which we know they’re extremely bad at), and knowing what fundamentally motivates them. I’m all for innovation (be it technology driven or human centered) and “inventing” the future, but people are people – yesterday, today and tomorrow – and will always react, behave and require things people need and desire. I can ramble on, but I’ll link you to a Kottke post instead. Why Kottke instead of directly to the HBS case study he’s referring to…well, because I think the title of his post says all this better than I can:

    http://kottke.org/09/11/understanding-vs-listening-to-customers

    cheers!

    Comment by lessbuzzwords -

  66. Mark,
    Excellent Reminder – Too often entrepreneurs/sales people will spend precious time trying to accommodate a potential client when in the same amount of time they could have found 2 (or more) clients that like the product/service just the way it is.

    At Ngage Inc. ( http://www.ngagelive.com ) we have certainly seen this with our Live Chat service for Attorneys… some Lawyers “get it” and like it, others want to change it. We learned early on to hold our ground and we are a better, stronger company for it.

    Great Post, Thanks!

    K.C.
    Ngage Inc.
    http://www.ngagelive.com

    Comment by KC -

  67. Fabulous post. So important to remember to balance serving our customers with creating what they truly need. Thanks for a great reminder!

    Comment by Judi Cogen -

  68. There is a book that focuses on this very premise — The Innovator’s Dilemma. Good read.

    Comment by bschaef -

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  70. Great post, Mark. The other mistake is — build it and they will come. We have both seen solutions invented in a lofty tower of corporate (let’s say Compuserve) arrogance or by the technologist enamored with his latest mousetrap. I doubt that they are “kicking their own ass.”

    How do you balance inventing into a real customer/market need and creating the vision-less customer-driven feature road map that makes it impossible to deliver and more importantly sell?

    Comment by jabrewer3 -

  71. Well said, Mark. I wrote a similar rant just a couple of weeks ago. Customers generally know their business requirements, but try to state them as technical requirements, which they are rarely qualified to do. Technology providers must listen to customers, but should also help them imagine different and better ways of addressing business opportunities and challenges with technology.

    Comment by lehawes -

  72. I would add that from the perspective employee, it is much more satisfing to be pursuing a bold vision than to be chasing what other people have already thought of and done. The best people aren’t going to be interested in the latter type of work.

    Comment by johnmcg -

  73. This is so true, and it doesn’t matter what industry you work in. Twelve years ago, the owner of the company I work for told me pretty much the same thing and I only half believed him at the time. I slowly discovered that most people can’t imagine the future until they’re staring at it.

    This is fine if you’re talking about your customers, because eventually, you’ll be able to show them the new product. Once they see it, they understand. But what if you need to generate support for your vision within your company? Verbal descriptions and powerpoint presentations simply don’t work. I quickly became proficient in crafting video demonstrations of product proposals. That works. People understand.

    Comment by strettadotcom -

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