Sure, listen to your customers -- but don't expect them to have all the answers

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At a panel yesterday on architecting the social enterprise at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, MA, panelists discussed the importance of social channels in maintaining a conversation with customers and letting them help drive product development.  

But there are limits to this approach.

JP Rangaswami, Chief Scientist at Salesforce.com explained that as The Clue Train Manifesto put forth years ago, "markets are about conversations," and as such we need to be engaged in conversations with customers. As Rangaswami put it, customers are connected to each other and they're talking about your products and services whether you're involved or not. He says online social media tools have "created a prior past where it is normal [again] to have conversations," contrasted with the one-to-many marketing that dominated most of the 20th century.

And he maintains that it is essential to listen to these customers because basically in their conversations online, they're engaging in R&D whether you like it or not. 

Laura Bassett, who is director of customer experience management and emerging products at Avaya agrees saying that a critical part of her job is monitoring social channels and listening to customers, even she says, letting them guide the direction of products, innovation and ideas.

Rangaswami explained that each connection in the social network has value and the connections are what make the value proposition and you can become a part of that.

This kind of approach to product development and customer service is relatively new, though. Up until recently some combination of marketing, R&D, and engineering and perhaps focus groups drove product ideas. Certainly it's imperative to listen to and communicate with customers wherever they are, and online social channels offer unprecedented opportunities to do this, but can letting customers drive product development go too far? Is this just a hyper version of the focus group in a digital form?

Steve Jobs once famously 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." And fellow entrepreneur Henry Ford once said, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."

In an interview last year with The London Evening Standard, Apple's Jony Ive put it another way: "We don’t do focus groups -- that is the job of the designer. It’s unfair to ask people who don’t have a sense of the opportunities of tomorrow from the context of today to design."

The question then becomes who's right? I asked panel chair Michael Krigsman, CEO at Asuret, who told me that communication is the foundation of success when working with customers, but it's only part of the equation. 

"This listening demands empathy to understand what the customer desires even when they cannot articulate those needs clearly. The customer has a set of requirements but it is the technology developer's job to translate those needs into products that solve both current and anticipated problems. Balancing literal discussion against innovation based unarticulated needs is always difficult, but that's the real art of creating great technology," Krigsman explained.

Customers can be extremely helpful in identifying gaps in products. A good example of this is Evernote, which announced today it was implementing a reminder system -- one of the most frequently requested features from their users. They heard their users and they implemented an incremental change to the product that was obviously needed.

But real innovation doesn't necessarily come from customers. In the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs, he said Apple came up with iPod because they liked the concept of the MP3 player, but the existing products were too hard to use and they believed they could do better. Same with iPhone -- it was an answer to a problem in the market, because early smartphones were clunky and it was hard to use their most advanced features.

At the time, these weren't Apple's markets and customers weren't articulating a need for them, but over time they became among their most successful ones at Apple. Their existing customers had no idea they were looking for a better MP3 player or a better cell phone until they were presented with one.

So while social gives you the ability to listen to your customers, and you should absolutely listen to them, don't expect they will always lead you to the place you want to be. Sometimes that's your job and the customers follow.

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