• 05 Aug 2010
  • What Do You Think?

What Is Customer Opinion Good For?

Summing Up: Are customer wishes irrelevant when creating a new product? Jim Heskett's readers say it depends on the product, on market goals, and where you are in the development cycle. (Online forum has closed; next forum opens September 2.)
by Jim Heskett

Summing Up

Customer inputs to the product development process count, but in different ways and at different times, according to many responding to this month's column.

As Alexander Gat put it, competing and pioneering products "should take significantly different PD (product development) paths." Jacoline Loewen pointed out that "Asking the customer's opinion is great for quality control check(s), but for creative strategy get beyond the client." Gerald Nanninga commented that "consumers are very good at explaining frustrations and problems, … (but their) opinions about hypotheticals (and) … something new and different is worthless." Ron Kurtz noted that (customers) "are better at reacting to things and defining their 'problems' that they would like to see resolved or alleviated."

Some commented on the limits of formalized marketing research. As Robert Vitkine said, "Good ideas and great products arise from strong insight, gut feel and imagination. Bad ideas, lousy products or services can be avoided by serious market research." Andy Robin pointed out that in the semiconductor business "one still had to spend a lot of time with customers to get a good feel for what things seemed more or less important … (because) customers … had no sense when it came to entertaining tradeoffs (between features and cost)." Phil Clark commented that, regardless of method or purpose, "It is important to know your customers … better than they know themselves… They will tell you through behavior what they really want … not necessarily by answering marketing questions." Maree Conway said, "Ask customers what they think about the future rather than the present, and we might get some very useful ideas." Chintamani Rao said, "That does not mean you should not ask consumers: the question is what to ask them and how. It's about understanding consumer needs, not asking them what they want."

Several questioned the way some think about the development of products of any type in a rapidly changing business environment. As V. P. Kochikar put it, "Rather than saying, 'You throw me your need over the wall, and I'll throw the finished product back over the wall,' dissolving the wall and finding the best product collaboratively is the way to innovation." Naveen Kashyap commented, "In a business world where the paradigm is collaborative innovation with customers, with the amount of personalization expected in every offering, the customer's opinion is in fact more important than ever." Gaurav Bhalla said "Creating the future … is about understanding customers' value trajectories and determining what innovations will better fit these yet-to-occur realities."

Does this provide us with a set of criteria for determining how and when to weight the importance of customer inputs? Jonathan Hinkle believes it does. As he put it, "… the question may really be, 'Will this product be marketed as a disruptive product or fit with customers' paradigms?' Customer feedback is always important, but the weighting of that voice should vary greatly." How can we know when customer inputs to product development count most? What do you think?

Original Article

Is it my imagination, or is marketing research and interest in customer views on anything of importance on the wane? The thought was triggered by Steve Jobs' initial response to reports that customers were having trouble with the antennae on Apple's iPhone 4, its latest "superproduct." It was reported that he commented that iPhone 4 users would have to learn not to hold the phone by its lower left-hand corner, precisely the way many of us seem to grasp it naturally. Remember, this is a company that has been described by a number of its chroniclers, rightly or wrongly, as being somewhat averse to the use of marketing research as opposed to following the dreams and preferences of its product developers. Apple is perhaps the latest incarnation of SONY, which is said to have avoided such research in favor of its designers' opinions in coming up with products such as the Walkman. Apparently, the thinking is: Who needs customers' opinions or reactions when you can come with ideas and products like these?

It prompted me to go back to a very popular book of five years ago, Blue Ocean Strategy, to check my recollection of what the authors had to say about the role of the customer in fashioning a strategy that would enable an enterprise to escape from red, blood-strewn, competitive waters and fashion a course into the open, blue waters of market dominance, mainly through the design of new businesses and products before the competition might get to them. They wrote, "To set a company on a strong, profitable growth trajectory … it won't work to benchmark competitors … Nor is conducting extensive customer research the path to blue oceans [italics mine]. Our research found that customers can scarcely imagine how to create uncontested market space. Their insight also tends toward the familiar 'offer me more for less.' And what customers typically want 'more' of are those product and service features that the industry currently offers."

That brings me to a new book, Different, by Youngme Moon, a member of the marketing faculty at the Harvard Business School. She reacts to the proliferation of products and advertising that are so much alike that they create a blur in consumers' minds. Her call is for methods that will lead to counter-intuitive product development and marketing efforts—products, for example, that provide breakthroughs by offering less for much less or even more for much less, but products that meet needs that most of us can't even imagine. She describes how, by testing various product attributes through marketing research and shoring up the weakest, all competitors' products take on the same characteristics. As she puts it, "Meanwhile, the very instruments that these managers are relying on to establish and reinforce differentiation—competitive metrics, positioning maps, and customer surveys—have devolved into their obverse. They contribute to the herding behavior as opposed to protect against it [italics mine]. It's as if the entire community has been betrayed by the tools of their trade."

I have no particular brief for traditional marketing research. But is there a pattern here? Is it possible that "asking the customer" about anything of strategic importance is on the wane? If so, what are the implications for customers as well as those selling to them? What is customer opinion good for? What do you think?

To read more:

W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2005), p. 27.

Youngme Moon, Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd (New York: Crown Business, 2010), pp. 43-44.