Ego is a two-edged sword.
On one side it gives you the confidence and drive you need to create the future.
On the other, it can keep you from listening to the opinion's of others. And when those "others" include your customers and potential customers, you are making your life far harder than it has to be.
This is a lesson I learned the hard way. Let me tell you about it.
Carl Sewell, one of the nation's biggest car dealers, and I were just about done writing a book about how customer service can be a very effective business strategy--a radical idea back in the late 1980s--when Carl asked what he thought was the world's most basic question: "When do we focus group what we wrote?"
Book publishers don't like to run focus groups, I told him. The editors and salespeople think they know exactly what their readers are looking for.
"But how will we ever know what people want if we don't ask them?" Carl responded logically.
He hired the consumer-research firm Yankelovich, and told them to give the first one-hundred pages of our manuscript to a representative sample of our potential audience, in anticipation of them telling us what they thought.
A couple of weeks later, twelve people--eight men, four women--sat around a conference table with a moderator, while Carl, our editor, and I looked on from the other side of a two-way mirror. (The participants were told we were there. It did not inhibit them one whit, as you will see.)
The group began by discussing my proposed title. I knew we had to call it the book The $332,000 Customer. (The number is what an average customer spent with Sewell over the course of their lifetime.) My title, I argued humbly, was intriguing, thought-provoking, and would make the book jump off the shelves. (I cannot begin to tell you how clever I thought I was with that title As you can see, I had no shortage of ego, either.)
Within seconds, it was clear that the group was split about how smart I was. Nine out of the twelve people thought it was absolutely the worst title they had ever heard. The other three said they had heard worse.
It went downhill from there. They loved our central argument, but couldn't we reorganize things somehow to make information easier to use? They liked the idea of checklists at the end of the chapter, but couldn't we tell them what they should do about what they just read, and why did the book need to be so wordy? And so it went.
After a couple of days of licking our wounds, we took the comments to heart.
We created a new title. What kept resonating was that the focus group thought--correctly--that the entire book was about capturing and then keeping a customer forever. Since the fundamental idea was so important to them, we ended up using it twice: Customers for Life: Turning That One-Time Buyer Into a Lifetime Customer.
To make the book easier to digest, we chopped long chapters into two or three shorter ones, plus we made the book completely modular so you could skip the stuff that wasn't relevant to you.
And since it was clear that people were far more interested in "news you can use" than a clever turn of phrase, whenever there was a choice during the rewrite, sounding like USA Today trumped The New Yorker every time.
Since the book is a key reason my kids were able to go to the colleges of their choice, the moral seems clear to me: Get as much input from your customers as you can and act on it. Your personal ego be damned.
We all would like to think we know exactly what the customer wants. And, ironically, if you are a wonderful retailer like Sewell or Leslie H. Wexner, the man who built The Limited and Victoria's Secret empires, you might. But people like Carl Sewell and Les Wexner are rare. Incredibly rare.
The rest of us are like me, I think: People who believe they know what customers want based on long-experience in the field and the fact that we are customers ourselves. But the fact unless we are blessed--like Sewell and Wexner--we just don't know for sure.
That's why you have to ask customers want they want..and give it to them.