Stop listening to your customers so much

If there is one directive taken as doctrinal truth in marketing today, it is that the customer is king. We hear constant paeans to become more “customer centric;” to orient our businesses more centrally around the customer’s every whim, need or desire; that we need to build ever more singular “views of the customer” to better serve him or her. And much of this is true – most of the time.


But today I want to commit a heresy. Today I want to talk about when to not listen to your customer. Sometimes, frankly, the smartest business move is to pat your customer on the head and ignore them. Here’s why.

#1 – Customers do not care about your business

Your customers may genuinely like you (or, at least, your marketing) – in fact, you should hope they do, since affinity for a product or a brand is what drives the kind of organic customer advocacy every marketer desperately craves. But how much customers develop a personal affinity for your company or product – how much they like you – is strongly influenced by factors like slick marketing and price, as well as a good fundamental product. In the words of Mitch Hedberg, “I find a duck’s opinion of me is very much influenced by whether or not I have bread.” 


He’s come for your honey wheat…

Customers don’t really care about how your business model works or how profitable (or not) you are. They just want their bread. Any changes you make that jeopardize the size or quality of that bread, no matter how well-justified to improve the feasibility or longevity of your business model, will be incredibly unpopular. Just ask Netflix, who was forced to walk back their (completely reasonable) proposed service plan changes in 2011 after overwhelming customer opposition. Remember: as a business leader, only you are accountable for the success or failure of your business, and thus, can be trusted to know what’s best for it overall – not your customers.

#2 – Customers are hypocritical and inconsistent

Consumers the world over have a penchant for saying one thing, but doing another. 47% of Americans say they want healthier restaurant options, but only 23% ever order them. 74% of registered American voters say members of Congress should not be re-elected, but 88% of incumbents win. Surveys say that people want more quality, educational TV programming, but NCIS, Sunday Night Football and the Big Bang Theory are what people actually watch.

Psychological science has long known that self-reported surveys about what people want – or especially what they say they’re doing – are not only highly suspect, but often aspirational, and generally very unreliable.*

So what’s the alternative? Study what customers do. This, after all, is what you have a digital analytics tool for! Prioritizing insight gleaned from customer behavior versus customer sentiment will expose what economists call “revealed preferences” between many rival choices.

#3 – Listen to key customers… just not too much.

Bill Gates famously opined that your most unhappy customers are often your greatest source of learning. Why is that? Well, your best customers – the ones who love your product and keep spending more on it – are mostly having their needs filled already. Certainly, you want to keep these customers very happy, and it’s a best practice to stay in close contact with them. But your best customers will tend to want new, very specific features or enhancements to your existing product – not fundamental change. In other words, your existing customers’ desires for incremental product development will often not enhance the basic value proposition your product offers.

Growing that value prop is critical to long-term growth. Two of your best paths of growth as a business leader are increasing the basic value proposition of your product (allowing you to charge more, or attract new customers from competitors), and/or expand your addressable market by adding new fundamental capabilities. Your existing customers often won’t ask you to do these things. They’ll want more bread, not cake.

Listen, but reflect too

None of this is to suggest that customer feedback isn’t generally an incredibly valuable source of insight. Just we must be clear about its limitations, particularly insofar as customers’ wishes conflict with your business model. If asked, most consumers would probably also prefer that websites not use tracking, stores not record them on security cameras, and that we abolish advertising from TV. As they say, if wishes were fishes, the sea would be full.

Smart marketing is not only about listening to customers’ needs – it’s about helping to shape them as well, and give form to the underlying impulses behind them. Convincing customers to buy your product is as much about convincing them of what they need as it is meeting those needs with a product. Just ask Whole Foods, or the geniuses out there who are making billions of dollars selling people bottled water or useless vitamin supplements.

If they’d only listened to what customers wanted twenty years ago, would anyone have said “tap water from a bottle?” I doubt it.


* – This isn’t to say that customer surveys, or “voice of the customer” tools, are useless. Far from it. But they must be used with the right perspective on self-reported customer behavior.


  • Reply Tim Wilson |

    Great post!

    Two things:

    1) Claiming that The Big Bang Theory isn’t quality, educational programming is blasphemy! Them’s fightin’ words… 🙂

    2) A nod to Clayton Christensen is in order here — The Innovator’s Dilemma spends a lot of time laying out the reasons that listening to customers as your sole input will set you up for being crushed down the road by a competitor who is actually being disruptive.

    • Reply Blair Reeves |

      1 – I know, one more TV show I should really watch… I still haven’t gotten to the Sopranos!

      2 – Totally. I’ve heard versions of that argument in a couple of places, and Innovator’s Dilemma is actually next on my reading list as a result (shout out to our friend Jay Henderson for recommending it). When I’m done, I’ll be adding my thoughts here.

  • Reply Peter Hughes |

    This was a refreshing discussion about a concept I have always believed should be require reading and contemplation by anyone who is ever in a selling position, and covers a broad spectrum of aptitude sand careers. I would like to add this plays into an asinine adage “the customer is always right”. This is biggest of oxymorons, if the customer is always right then why in the world does he need you. This is another reason you have to sometimes stop listening to the client!!!

So, what do you think ?