“Being Customer Oriented Isn’t the Best Marketing Strategy”

[this post has been edited 5 hours after first publishing, based on feedback that – in its original form –  it wasn’t quite clear what I was trying to say. And I agree wholeheartedly. Thx Ron Shevlin for reaching out. Much appreciated. I hope it makes sense now]

“If I had asked my Customers what they want, they would have asked for faster horses” [Henry Ford]

“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.” [Steve Jobs]

These quotes, including the title to this post (which is also the title to this AdAge post), are exemplary to many others claiming that marketers should not listen to Customers but follow their own hearts, instincts or other perspectives.

Many of these quotes, and stories, are based on anecdotal evidence. Anecdotal evidence is, by its very nature, a reasoned truth thought up in hindsight. It tells “the truth” from the perspective of the story-teller. It tells a predictable tale in which their action (anything they did, explicitly not involving listening to customers) resulted in a positive reaction (eg growing market share).

Take this tale at AdAge for example. It’s a tale in which the author (Ries) claims that a certain Chinese car manufacturer became market leader because they explicitly did not listen to Customers. Instead they listened to what (they thought) competition would be doing (= listening to Customers and focus on the sedan-category) and decided to do the different thing (=focus on the SUV segment).

I can probably write (and have written) multiple posts on why it is important to be Customer centric and how to listen to your Customers very well, but that is not the point of today’s post. This post is about showing how people choose to emphasize only one, limited perspective or one specific angle to a story to make an anecdotal, unsubstantiated quote. I don’t know why, but they do. And I think it’s a harmful practice.

Let me explain. If I would have take the consulting job the author Ries did, I could have very well made the exactly same choices he did, based on the same analysis. Only, if I would have told a story about it, afterwards, I most likely would have chosen a different angle. I would have told that our Customer research showed that Chinese Consumers desire a sedan, for it provides a certain status. But I would have emphasized we also discovered that, although there is a clear desire for sedans, Customers research told us that Customers really also valued SUV’s, because their families are growing and they need the space and comfort these cars provide. The rest being history (i.e. the car manufacturer also becomes market leader). “Welcome to the age of the Customer!” I could have titled the post.

Please check the article and you’ll see that both my storyline and the original fit very well with the available data in the article. Same advice to the Chinese car manufacturer, same results, two different stories though.

It’s much like the parabel of the blind men and an elephant, in which each blind man describes the elephant from his own standpoint (standing at the leg, the ears, the tail etc). All men tell something different. Yet they are all right, albeit they are obviously not feeling and telling the whole story.

And that’s what it is. The author of the AdAge article isn’t wrong. He’s probably right, as I would have been with my story of the same events. The whole truth is though that if he did not conduct (or found) Customer research to find out that Customers really valued SUV’s and if he didn’t also check out what competition was likely to do, he would not have discovered that there was this huge underserved potential.

Listening to what your Customers are saying (or not saying) matters, as does trying to tell the whole truth. At least, I think so.

It is not one perspective that will bring you Customer and business success, it is connecting the dots between different perspectives. Regardless of the story you tell afterwards.

One thought on ““Being Customer Oriented Isn’t the Best Marketing Strategy”

  1. Great post as usual Wim.
    Adding my 10 cents I would say that the famous quotes of Ford and Jobs should actually be interpreted a little differently than you would at first reading.
    I think (I hope) what ford and Jobs meant was: don’t blindly listen to your customer. Don’t let them tell you what product to bring to the market. Don’t just execute what they ask you to. Listen closely but never forget to form your own opinion, to have a vision, to interpret what you say through the lens of your own strategy, brand, guiding principles, market position etc.
    So it starts with not taking what customers say at face value. Because a. they have no expertise in articulating what they really want (that’s not their job) and b. they have no experience in designing the solution to what they may want (that’s certainly not their job).
    And then, after having asked all the right questions and listened to the meaning behind the answers, you’re still only at the beginning. Because then the process of internalization starts, where interpretation and sense making play a big role. This is exactly the reason why good research is 10%listening to customers and 90% interpreting what they said.
    So: when a customer would tell me they want a sedan I would never ever start building a sedan for them. I would probably start by asking a different question, because when customers talk about products they are framing judgements outside of their area of expertise, which means that, as researcher, you have to watch out. Then I would try to find out what it is they actually mean when they say they want a sedan. It is very likely that the sedan is a metaphor for deeper motivations and drivers that are much more suitable to feed product development. And then I would start talking with internal teams about the place of the sedan in our product/brand portfolio and innovation strategy.
    In the end the case study may sound like this: they said give me a sedan. And I listened very carefully. So I gave them an SUV instead. Because that was exactly what they wanted from us.


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