I just read an annoyingly provocative article by Mark Cuban, one of those billionaire types who needs a bit more attention in the social media realm. He claims “you should NEVER listen to your customers” and, falling for the bait, thought I’d post on the matter.
So here’s my similarly inflammatory response:
Three things Mark’s company did WRONG in failing to listen to his customers:
1. They listened to the wrong customers. There are a lot of people who interact with you and your products and services, so it matters which ones you’re listening to. If you ask only one person or one group, you’re not going to get a complete view of the situation. With our clients, we seek input from across multiple roles. We talk to the project manager who is held accountable for a project’s success. We study end users and how they use the product. We question executive stakeholders who are looking at the broader purpose and alignment with corporate goals. We have to balance input from each group. If we only listened to one group we’d wind up with a product that didn’t appeal to the market.
A lot of our clients are visionary and are exploring the boundaries of what’s possible. When we listen to and collaborate with them on new ideas, exciting things can happen – innovations we wouldn’t have seen or contemplated on our own are made better by our clients’ input, even clients who aren’t pushing the envelope.
Either way – it sounds like the folks Mark’s company listened to were the wrong customers, or they have customers that aren’t using their products strategically.
2. They didn’t ask the right questions. Listening is definitely a part of the way we gain input for new product ideas, but we don’t rely solely on listening. We ask the right questions. Developing new products is not a passive exercise in gathering information. Customers understand how their businesses work, what their pain points are, and what needs they have. Without a doubt, they’re the experts who know and live with the problem. Our role is to ask the right questions, to make sure we, together, completely understand the problem our clients are trying to solve—and how it relates to the bigger picture. We need to help our clients explore the terrain and ensure we’ve gathered all of the right material.
3. They didn’t add value to the suggestions. A lot of times, customers may jump to a solution – how to solve a single pain point. But we can help them take a step back to figure out what the broader problem is and to see how it intersects with other problems. This helps us work together to come up with a more complete solution than would have otherwise been apparent.
In our industry, if your customers are hiring you to passively take ideas and implement them, they’re not looking to you to solve problems or achieve goals. Instead, they’re looking at you as a contract software developer, writing code to a specification they provide. In my view, we are hired to do much more than that: we’re there to help make their ideas better, and add value to the process. Mark’s post, then, is hitting on the wrong problem: Listening to customers isn’t the issue. The issue is whether you can ask the right questions, of the right customers, and add value in a way that solves a marketplace problem effectively.
I suppose I could end with a provocative sort of statement of my own: We’re not in business to make customers happy. We’re in business to help them solve problems and meet their goals, which in the long run, does make them happy. But only because we add value along the way.