beta program, Customer Service, Customer Strategy, Product Thoughts, Startup

Customers are Always Right (Until They’re Not)

Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/37603091@N02/
Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/37603091@N02/

This post is part of the Startup Edition writing collaborative. Read more about this here.

When you get a request from a customer, one of the following quotes just might come to mind:

“The customer is always right” –Marshall Field

“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” – Steve Jobs

These quotes are both worth considering. When you get customer feedback, you don’t know if it’s the next thing that is going to make your business successful. Perhaps the feedback is just a random thought from a person who might not have the same concern the next time they open your product and use it. The feedback might also be the key to understanding what makes your customer tick. So what’s an intelligent, thoughtful person to do with user feedback. What should you do to balance your long-term vision against the thing your customer said today?

I believe you should start with empathy when you’re considering the customer’s feedback. When someone takes the time to give you feedback, it’s often because you failed them or because there is a mismatch of expectations between what you told them and what they experienced. Trying to understand what they are feeling and repeating that effort back to them is a very important way that you can learn more about your customer’s experience today.

Having the presence of mind to be in the moment with that customer and focus on what they are thinking and saying right now is another key way that you can address their feedback. As Field suggested so many years ago, the Customer is Right not because your business needs to change drastically but because your business is the sum of small relationships that continue over time. Your customer’s feedback is a sign that the relationship can be nurtured and that it’s your job to figure out how to make it better for them. If you can’t make it better for the customer, you owe it to them to explain what you can do and to make the steps of the process as transparent as possible.

Does this mean you are going to be able to make things right for every customer? Is every customer’s feedback relevant to your long-term vision? Maybe. It’s really hard to know at the moment of receiving the feedback, listening to it, acting upon it, and finishing whether the customer’s feedback is an issue for the long term. And you do know it is an issue for today: so start today by responding to that customer in the best way possible.

And a note on vision. After a while, you’ll start to have a “sixth sense” or internal compass that will tell you whether the customer’s feedback should and does fit in your long term vision. You and your organization get bonus points if you have a living document that explains the tenets you believe in, and if you actively debate those tenets to arrive at a vision matching some of what your customer tells you every day. The customer will not always be right, and they will always be more right than you in letting you know what they want today. It’s your job to figure out how that fits into the longer term vision.

This post is part of the Startup Edition writing collaborative. Read more about this here.

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2 thoughts on “Customers are Always Right (Until They’re Not)

  1. Great thoughts Greg. Unfortunately customer feedback is a weak signal and detecting the meaning from such a weak signal can be difficult unless you have the right skills, empathy and vision like you mention, and tools in place, A/B or usability, etc. testing. Ultimately, this is why it’s so important to build products you know in your heart solve real problems, not problems you think people have. I tend to lean more towards the Jobs side, keep your customers engaged by keeping them on the balls of their feet; if they’re on their heels telling you what to do, you’re already screwed.

    1. Corey – thanks for the feedback! I think we’ll both agree that the devil is in the details – understanding the things you know in your heart that solve real problems and determining the best way to validate the signals you get from consumers (and your customers).

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