Why the Customer Is (Sometimes) Wrong
The customer, turns out, is not always right.
Directly asking your customers for feedback may seem logical, but it won’t always help you run a better business, writes Steve Martin, director of the business strategy organization Influence at Work, in a recent HBR blog post.
So how can customer feedback be useless?
Customers don’t know what they want. You’re sweet to ask and smart to care. And your customers want to tell you how to make them happy, according to Martin. But their decisions, more often than not, are based more on context than cognition.
"As a result, asking someone to pinpoint what will influence them in the future is a bit like saying, 'tell me how you will behave in the future when you are not thinking about what I have just asked you about?'
Conducting market research or having conversations opens the door and gets communication flowing. But as the late Steve Jobs 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.”
Customers are often unknowingly influenced to make decisions. Martin also pointed to an Arizona State University study conducted in a New York City subway station in 2005, in which researchers evaluated the percentage of commuters who donated money to a street musician.
Researchers compared two instances: how much commuters donated when no one else was tossing money in the musician's hat versus how much they donated when they could see others donating money. In the latter, the amount of donations increased eight-fold. But when the researchers questioned commuters about why they gave more in the second instance, commuters simply said they liked his music or “felt sorry for the guy.”
"Free markets, where informed consumers freely decide what products to purchase, may not be as free as we think," said Peter Ubel, physician and behavioral scientist at Duke University, in a Forbes column. "We sometimes make purchases that go against our best interests, because clever companies have figured out ways to nudge the wallets out of our pockets."
They have unrealistic expectations. The bar is pretty high for customer service these days, with companies such as Zappos offering free returns and a full refund if a customer is not 100 percent satisfied with a product purchase. And, a bad review from an unhappy customer can stick, and bad news travels fast. But it pays to recognize that some customers are simply impossible to please, says Adam Alter, management professor at the Stern School of Business at NYU and author of the book Drunk Tank Pink.
"Sometimes the best outcome for a company is to part ways with a difficult or unreasonable customer, rather than encouraging future interactions by kowtowing to the customer’s unrealistic expectations," he said via email. "Of course the devil’s in the details—it takes delicacy and diplomacy to explain to customers that you can’t provide everything they’re asking for, but in exceptional cases, it makes more sense to terminate the relationship than to stick stubbornly to the idea that even the most difficult customers are always right."
JULIE STRICKLAND covers start-ups, small businesses, and entrepreneurial endeavors of all kinds for Inc. Her work has been published in Brooklyn Based and City Limits in New York, the Free Times in Columbia, SC, Real Travel Magazine in London, and Daegu Pockets in South Korea. She lives in New York City.
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