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Want to innovate? Then don’t rely on customer feedback

Want to innovate? Then don't rely on customer feedback

Friday 12th February 2016

Ford famously said, "If I had asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses." This conundrum - wanting to understand your customers' problems but not being able to rely on them to tell you - is still true today and is rooted in how humans naturally think.

Look at the picture above. On first glance many see a yellow smilie face. You may need to look again before you describe black dots strategically placed on yellow shape of certain dimensions and so forth. (The Gestalt psychology theory is: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.)
This is because humans like to interpret and give meaning to what they experience.

This reduces stress and aids problem solving and an essential coping mechanism for daily life.
The challenge for organisations that want to innovate is that they are trying to unlock the less ordinary to create something new, soften something that doesn't currently exist.

The best inventions meet an unmet need and are rarely articulated by customers. This is why relying solely on customer feedback through surveys or from front-line staff like customer support or sales can limit innovation and growth. (Steve Jobs didn't ask customers what they wanted either).

Feedback from the front-line will help identify the problem and in many cases even help establish priorities, but organisations need to go further if they really want to innovate. Consider this:

  • This sort of feedback is based on experience with existing products and services; it tells you if customers like what you currently deliver but does not help you uncover unmet needs.
  • It's based on past experiences rather than looking to the future; you're getting hindsight rather than foresight.
  • People describe what they know, not what they don't know; none of us know what we don't know. Customers will tell you about what they are currently experiencing, which in turn will drive employees to focus on what they know - existing products and services - hence driving a vicious circle.

If you really want to innovate you need to immerse yourself in the customers' problem and this takes time. It involves:

  • Identifying the problem; front-line surveys and teams are an excellent resource for this, but this is only the first step.
  • Staying with the problem long enough to establish root cause; this usually involves product owners and/or designers to probe, explore and observe customers, ideally in their environment, to gather a rich source of data before developing hypothesis.
  • Experimenting with new ideas and measuring the outcome; be prepared to fail often and throw out your ideas when you discover it is not meeting the need.

Responding to customers is critical to retain customer relationships but unlikely to drive breakthrough innovations or significant growth. Innovation requires a different level of thinking. Organisations that do this well become obsessed with customer problems and embed distinct practices, often involving collaboration across diverse teams, that take feedback from the front-line and translate into new inventions and experiences that delight customers.