The customer is always right. But what happens when customers don't communicate clearly what it is they want? Implementing their unvalidated feedback can have disastrous consequences for growing startups.

That's the lesson Digsy learned when it spent months incorporating customer feedback into one of its products, a platform to connect commercial real estate brokers with potential tenants. While tech-savvy brokers embraced the innovative tools, they weren't widely adopted. 

"Every time we explained the idea of what we were doing to a listing broker, they loved it and seemed enthusiastic, yet when we would send them leads they ignored them," Digsy director of customer success Kyle Pinzon wrote on the company's blog.

Pinzon and his team spent three days figuring out why their new product had failed, and realized they were implementing feedback from the wrong customer base. The brokers who had said they would love a new platform weren't the ones who had the direct need for it.

This startup's story ignited an insightful conversation on the /startup Reddit thread about how to respond to customer feedback. Many commenters used Henry Ford's popular quote: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." 

Redditor lunarsunrise explained: "There's a large and critical difference between listening to what your customers say and doing exactly what they ask for without thinking through it."

As Digsy learned, it's important for any company to step back and figure out where the feedback is coming from, not just implement results from a customer survey or focus group without question. What's the underlying message behind the feedback? For Ford's potential customers, the problem was not "slow horses" but a need to get from place to place without having to make stops at a nearby haystack.

It's only up to customers to identify the problem, not to figure out the solution. Steve Jobs fully embraced this idea as he grew Apple into the innovation powerhouse it is today. Jobs even went so far as to say, "it's not a customer's job to know what they want." 

Another successful approach is to adjust your product based on customers' actions--not their direct feedback. 

"Facebook is a great example of how to do this properly. Every change they make results in a huge vocal backlash. They ignore it and measure how people's behavior actually changes," wrote Redditor 18andover.

Companies that can dissect customer feedback enough to come up with an innovative solution are bound to succeed. Or get closer to success by failing fast and often until the right iteration of the product strikes the right balance. 

Published on: Nov 21, 2014