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.

    • Abhinav Narang
    • MBA student, GIM, Goa, India
    Professor Heskett,
    I believe that today the need to take into account the opinion of your customer is greater than it ever was before.

    Since the recession and the reduced customer spending, firms operating in markets across the world realize that customers are unwilling to pay for any feature or attribute that they think is unnecessary, and firms have to try harder to communicate to and convince customers of the value delivered for the extra price.

    At the same time, the need for a firm to listen to the customer's opinion also depends on, among other things, the industry, product segment, high/low involvement product, buying patterns, level of differentiation economically feasible, scope and ability to innovate, level of saturation in the market segment, and stage of product life cycle.

    Also, as a matter of personal opinion, I believe the entire issue of the fuss over the antennae of iPhone 4 was handled very poorly by the company, with new statements and new reasons coming every day or two, and it only remains a good example of "how not to handle things and what to avoid saying when there is noise being created because of a problem with your product."

    Of course, nothing can beat the PR disaster at the hands of a company in the case of the now-infamous Toyota recall of millions of its cars.
    • Alexander Gat
    • President, Educational Business Oracle
    First I'd like to express my appreciation for Professor Heskett's great articles and research. Thank You!

    Now here's my opinion regarding the use of customer opinion in product development and marketing:

    Just like there is not one detailed business model that works for every business there is not one PD model that works for every product. You can put most products into two general categories of Competing Products and Pioneering Products. Each category should take significantly different PD paths.

    If a company's goal is to develop a product to directly compete against another product already on the market (Competing Product) then using customer surveys, as well as Internet chatrooms and such, can put the new product into a great position, especially if the first product gets some bad press and already has some readily know faults.

    In bringing this into the iPhone scenario you'll see that iPhone already had some severe negative issues prior to Steve Jobs' comment with at least its limitation to only one carrier and that carrier's historically limited wireless availability in most non-highly populated urban areas. Now iPhone has some strong competition and is no longer the top ranked.

    Pioneering Products should take a different path in PD. These products do require engineering creativity because they are products that customers don't know they want, yet. In most cases these products will require creative marketing campaigns, such as long lead-time teaser advertisements, in order to spur interest. Pioneering Products are always riskier adventures because most of the successful ones, such as gasoline powered horseless carriages, started by not knowing if customers can be convinced that the new product is something they want or need.
    • Josh Doherty
    The underlying principle of product/competitive convergence is partly (mainly?) due to the use of common cognitive models/techniques. If all players apply the same decision model and then go apply it to statistically valid samples of the same market, they will, in time, converge tot he same answer. This possibly means that advantage arises from 1. recognition of cognitive homogeneity, 2. differential ability/talent/execution to read an react early using those models, 3. the ability to develop new cognitive models (but on the margin, these will probably reveal less and less new information).
    • Anonymous
    Prof. Heskett,

    This is a fascinating topic, at least personally for me. But more than focusing on what good has come from asking customers about strategically important things or integrating those back into the product/service system, what I find more interesting is the proliferation of opinions, by customers, more than ever, online.

    The internet, as a system, has opened up opinions from customers in a far more explosive way than any other formal channel devised ever. So, now we have customers cribbing about every single issue or talking excitedly about every new small feature. For instance, take every small feature added by Google, on gmail - their announcement of multiple sign-ins in the same browser is being talked about. I agree it is a spanking new feature, but just see the amount of opinions about it, online.

    I explored this further and created a 'opinion economy' that rivals the earlier 'attention economy, in a blog post of mine - http://bit.ly/opinion-economy
    • Yadeed Lobo
    Customer opinion is sometimes important.

    First examples of customer opinions are important.

    a) An article on a Harvard website about Coke and how it "discovered" and created a new market. It involved appointing an African American as a sales agent/manager before the civil rights movement and then increasing company profitability. It's interesting how when profits stagnate or plateau, every customer's opinion counts.

    b) Another example in the present day with Coke targeting single, affluent working women with Coke Zero. Customer surveys tend to reveal changing preferences to tailor existing products to target demographics/ diversity of opinion. Hence the need to ask for your demographic groups in survey responses.

    c) Another example would be Unilever in India. In his seminal article, the late CK Prahalad alluded to the fact that fortune at the bottom of the pyramid (basically extending the credit revolution as opposed to Karnani's hypothesis of creating jobs) was awaiting company's profits which were stagnating. So new customers were "discovered" who could be accessed by creating sachets (smaller volumes) of products rather than big helpings of products.

    d) In a captive customer business (company is a price taker- lifeline utility), where the customer does not have a choice, customer surveys are usually important as the level of services are agreed to with the public. And hopefully delivered on! That is where customer opinion is a useful barometer.

    And examples of where customer opinions don't count:

    Christensen / Schumpeter's theory of disruptive innovation would come into play. You have to disconnect with your audience. Sometimes that is the only way left to succeed especially when going for broke:

    a) Hollywood /Bollywood movie studios who fund movies even if audiences do not like them. This is because in a couple of bad movies they might strike one which is pure gold.

    b) maybe financial behemoth Goldman Sachs, which came out with innovative financial products (which are basically repackaging different risk profiles to reduce overall risk in one product). It might tank a financial system but then new fangdangly products with supernormal returns (more for less) with minimal risk is what irrational investors are looking for. Although market research might help here to indicate that customers look for guaranteed returns!!!

    c) Apple, Cirque De Soleil, Blackberry in its heyday, Yellow Tail wines (which only the authors apparently loved)

    d) Hells Pizza (extreme marketing),42 Below vodka -repackaging existing products with a good marketing facade.

    e) Indian art - indications of nouveau rich embracing Western sensibilities.

    f) Life saving medical products

    So customers' opinions do not count in startups where a conscious decision has been made that conventional wisdom will not become part of the business model.

    Simply, market research is Porter's way of looking at things, a hard economic argument for and against. Whereas Kim and Mauborgne's theory is the marketing argument that accountants should not be in charge. I guess it's just different ways of looking at the world. Company politics always dictates what takes precedence.

    Context of where you are is important. But a customer's opinion "always" counts especially when things go wrong after product development and marketing is done and dusted! Whether Apple or when there is sewage overflow into a customer's backyard. When the [redacted] hits the fan, you need damage control and customer receptiveness/responsiveness to be mantras.
    • Stephen Pettise
    • Managing Principal, Golden Spike Resources Group
    Thank you, Dr. Heskett, for your as usual provocative contribution to strategic planning/marketing dialog. Earl Sasser and you (along with other collaborating authors) have contributed so much with your Service Profit Chain and subsequent books related to building a strong base of highly satisfied/highly loyal customers.

    With regard to Market Research, its validity is highly dependent on how you use it. If, say, you are researching a possible new product related to your restaurant chain, my experience is if it is higly polarizing, chances are it has a potential following.

    As the person who was responsible for bringing the Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity Breakfast to market when I was a young VP of Marketing at IHOP, we did absolutely NO market research on an item that has conservatively been responsible for at least 200 million in sales for that chain.

    Yet when I am working with clients who are trying to build a loyal base of devoted customers, I will always monitor their satisfaction with our brand through market research.
    There are several good comments related to your article, particularly Abhinav Narang's.
    • CJ Cullinane
    I was amazed at the million-plus people who literally lined up, some overnight, to buy the new iteration of the iPhone. It was not on sale (lower price) or even a proven product, but yet there they were on the news. If this is not a "herd" mentality I do not know what is.

    More than market research it seems like "Buzz Marketing" or Word of Mouth marketing is driving the blockbuster products of this decade. Customer feedback and input seems to be mostly ignored in favor of the surprise and awe (shock and awe?) a new product can bring to a market.

    This 'new' marketing (little customer input) seems very similar to the cars of the late fifties, large fins and a lot of chrome. This designer driven tactic taken to an extreme can have similar results if there is not customer involvement and feedback.

    I feel there should be a balance of market research and designer input. Letting the designers and engineers talk to customers and end users would be a solid step in this direction. This might help to eliminate the 'cookie cutter' approach of market research.

    And yes I do remember the cars with big engines, big fins, and lots of chrome.

    • Fidel M. Arcenas
    • Consultant, TIEZA - Philippines
    Rewind to the early eighties: US companies modified Japan's successful adaptation of W.E. Deming's concept of TQM which, ironically, was first snubbed in the US. By delivering quality products to customers, these ompanies surged ahead of the pack in global competition. Texas Instruments, Procter and Gamble, GE, and DuPont, to name a few, realized astonishing levels of efficiency, quality and customer satisfaction through TQM. By focusing on the customers, these companies found out what the customers want and their expectations.

    Whether a product is new or an improvement of what is already in market, it would be sheer folly to gloss over how the customers would react to it.

    In cases where a need for a new product has to be created, it is necessary to arouse awareness of the product and interest in its benefits in order that prospective customers accept the product and eventually purchase it. It all boils down to winning the hearts and minds and pockets of the customers.

    So how can we just scoff at customer research? A company that cuts its bond with the customers will soon be gasping for breath.
    • Anonymous
    I'd suggest that the question is not whether we should listen to customers but how. Too many companies think they can simply ask customers what they want and go build it. This leads to incremental, me-too product enhancements. The key is to really get at customers' unmet needs and preferences that they find hard to articulate. It takes more work, but that's where the pay-off is.
    • Sairam Tadigadapa
    Even if it is new product and the company is creating a new market, there is a need for understanding the customer needs and behavior. Market research is a tool for understanding the customer. Apple may not use market research tools as part of their new product development. But they did recognize a need for a device that unifies mobile phone, internet, entertainment etc. and built iPhone to address that need.
    • Anonymous
    "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." --Henry Ford
    • Aaron Pratt
    • Director of Marketing, Microboards Technology
    The art of innovation cannot be reduced to a science. Understanding what a customer does (how they use a product) can provide fodder for new ideas, and a test bed for identifying potential obstacles. That is especially useful with sustaining innovations (improvements on a current product or category of products). But true innovation is often such a departure from the norm that it requires behavioral changes that can't be imagined by any consumer except the most visionary, early adopter, until a prototype is in hand.

    Clayton Christensen has done a great job of outlining some of the factors that can help understand when to use and when to ignore customer feedback - I refer you to the series of books beginning with "The Innovator's Dilemma".
    • Dan Hoch
    • Principal, Rocky View Schools
    Organizations do have a responsibility to take into account the opinions and views of their stakeholders, to some extent. In a school setting, that can be reflected in a myriad of ways, in everything from the school discipline policy to the dress code, to name a few.

    There also exists, however, the charge for the organization to lead into what may be "new" waters, that which the stakeholders might not even be aware of, and possibly even, resistant to. If the organization has done its homework (due diligence) and knows the path to be new, but ultimately more beneficial, then they would be wise to not entertain the survey/research approach and lead with conviction, sensitivity and a sense of purpose.
    • Swan
    • CEO, twebevent
    This article, while interesting, seems to make the leap that Market Research must lead in pre-defined ways to product features. That should not have to be the case.

    While it is important to understand user needs, how you meet those needs can be in ways that customers had not initially requested.

    Users who want a compact mobile device that lets them type with a full keyboard are much more likely to ask for something resembling a blackberry than they are to even think that the concept of a virtual keyboard like the iphone is even possible.
    • Philippe Gouamba
    • Vice President of Human Resources, Skyline Windows, LLC
    Apple's 4G iPhone is indeed a "super product" but if its end-users are not "happy" with it, or if there exists a manufacturing defect in it, resulting in numerous complaints, then even Steve Jobs cannot ignore his customers.

    The customer, client, consumer, and end user is the ultimate "boss" of a company. An enterprise exists to produce revenue for its share-holders but it can only make revenue if it has a product that is well valued by consumers in the market place. Micro Economics have for years pointed out how fickle consumers can be, and as we have recently witnessed in the cellular phones industry, the raison d'etre of all of Apple's competitors is to offer the consumer at large a worthwhile alternative to Apple's iPhone. The industrious folks at Google are giving Apple a run for their money.

    The simple answer to this month's question is: Asking the consumer for his/her opinion may be on the wane but it should not be. If companies are not seeking the consumer's opinion, they are doing themselves a disservice and they are operating in a vacuum filled with avoidable risk. As "super" as Apple's iPhone is, it would be a failure if its antennae does not work for Apple's millions of consumers. The sellers of phones with Google's Android operating system would like nothing more than to welcome Apple's "ignored" customers.
    • Rebecca Mott
    Dr. Heskett provides excellent interrogation into the business processes, structures, and culture. Excellent and thought-provoking questions. I am a fan.

    Asking customers their opinions can lead to insights that produce innovative strategies. The question is "Will it?" It takes more than just looking at the current market, current products, and current processes to produce disruptive technologies that will shift the attitudes, behaviors, and opinions of consumers.

    I like the quote from Henry Ford (comment 11). I think about the resistance scientists like Bohr and Einstein encountered in shifting the thoughts of the scientific community. Even facts often do not sway skeptics. And let's face it, our businesses are full of skeptics in leadership positions.

    Consumers often know what they want, but often lack the imgination to produce anything beyond what is already being done. Those with imagination struggle in the business world to push against established technology, business structure, and business processes to create something "new" and "different." So, you continually get a "cheaper, faster, better" version of what is already being done.

    This is why entrepreneurship is a critical building block of a capitalist society. Although innovation can (and sometimes does) happen with the "big boys," it is often in response to the competitive pressures coming from a presence of entrepreneurs in the market.

    Strictly my opinion...
    • Jonathan Hinkle
    • Memory Systems Architect
    Thank you for the article and bringing up the subject. The why, when and how of listening to the customer is worthy of on-going analysis and discussion. There are critical questions to be asked about whether the product is evolutionary or disruptive. More appropriately the question may really be, "Will this product be marketed as a disruptive product or fit with customer's paradigms?". Customer feedback is always important, but the weighting of that voice should vary greatly.

    If a product is being positioned as evolutionary (possibly much larger value add, but same paradigm for customer) then the customers' voice should probably be weighted heavily. If it's to be a disruptive product, I'd suggest the customers' feedback should also be abstracted to a slightly higher level. For example, maybe the customer is asking for something to be 1" smaller, but what they really mean is that they'd like it to fit easier in their pocket. You could make something with a radically better design but does not directly meet their specific request. The more disruptive the technology, the more the team should discuss the customer feedback/requirements and thinking, "What are they really asking for... at a high level?"
    • Gerald Nanninga
    • VP, Retail Ventures Inc
    I've spent a large portion of my career doing consumer research, and this is what I've learned:

    1) Consumers are very good at explaining the frustrations and problems in their lives.

    2) Customers can tell you about their lifestyle.

    3) Consumers can accurately tell you about past behavior, but not future behavior.

    4) Consumer opinions about hypotheticals are worthless.

    5) Consumer opinions about something new and different is worthless.

    6) Consumers tend to be polite and are more likely to express intention to purchase than they really will.

    7) Consumer biases affect answers--they are more
    forgiving of brands they love and less forgiving of brands they hate, and the halo effect taints all the ratings attributes.

    Therefore , I usually stick to asking about problems, lifestyle and past behavior. If I can understand what they are doing now, and how it frustrates them, then I can use internal expertise to find a better answer to their problems that will fit into their lifestyle.

    The problems with consumer research is another reason why I prefer test marketing over consumer research. Given that a lot of current innovation is digital on the internet, it is easy to do a lot of beta testing (maybe that's why consumer research is out of vogue).

    One of my favorite stories about consumer research is from Bob Lutz. He said that when they did research around the Thunderbird automobile, people loved the car. When asked if they would appreciate it if they made the car a little bigger, the majority said yes. Therefore, Ford kept making the Thunderbird a little bigger, until it became so big that is was no longer a little sporty sports car and then people no longer liked it. They now hated the car because it was too big.

    I spoke more about this topic in a blog way back in 2007 (http://planninga-from-nanninga.blogspot.com/2007/05/stop-listening-to-me.html).
    • Charles H. Green
    • CEO, Trusted Advisor Associates
    First, many thanks for the wonderful series, Jim.

    I think you're onto something: the amount of solicited customer input is way up, but the quality of insight is way down. Renee and Chan were right in Blue Ocean, and I love your colleague Youngme Moon's formulation of the issue.

    It also goes back to what Mike Porter wrote around two decades ago: that 'best practices' and 'benchmarking' are inherently anti-strategic, because they foster herd-gathering and sameness, rather than differentiation.

    The dominant trend of our time seems to be the application of behavior psychology and metricization to smaller and smaller scales. Thus what passes for consumer input these days amounts to impersonal data-collection on pre-determined scales, amounting to not much more than 'in this particular instance and moment, precisely what were your emotions, on a scale of 1 to 10.'

    Historically, consumer high tech succeeded by ignoring market research, simply because what was needed was radical, and consumers couldn't envision alternatives to the only reality they knew. It took, and takes, visionaries to come up with the next 'cool' product that people will stand outside stores for. They stand there because they know they will be delighted by something they can't envision.

    Meanwhile, all the P&Gs and Hiltons and Verizons are digging themselves deeper and deeper into indistinguishable masses by their increasingly 'customer-focused' descent into meaningless, anonymous consumer trivia. If Steve Jobs occasionally lets his arrogance get away with him (and this was hardly the first time), I find it easy to give him a break; his average is way better than Derek Jeter's, and I for one find my iPhone4 antenna issue pretty much a non-issue.

    The kind of market research that would be useful for strategies is more focus groups. But I don't hear much about that anymore, instead I get blitzed with emails and hotel cards asking me to 'please take a minute and give us feedback.' I stopped doing that a long time ago.

    I propose Kim/Maubergne and your colleague Moon get together and write a new book called Blurred Herd. Just don't do any market research on the content.
    • Jacoline Loewen
    • Director, Loewen & Partners Private Equity
    Asking the customer's opinion is great for quality control check but for creative strategy. Get beyond the client.
    The head of GM's marketing here in Canada said he felt burdened by the amount of market research done and not read but seen as a necessary hurdle to jump in the marketing process (CYA research).

    Michael Porter's 5 Forces Model does not look at competitors except in a strategic manner also used by the Blue Ocean strategy - look for substitutes, etc. Porter called in competitIVE analysis, not competiTOR analysis.
    In an ideal world where we have loads of time, fine, dig into your competitor. But most of us do not have the luxury. Rather spend the time exploring other industries for ideas and other countries for fresh concepts and models.
    Cirque Du Soleil, described in Blue Ocean, was the number one Entrepreneur winner for Ernst & Young in their global competition. When I read Blue Ocean, it reminded me of Porter's style of Competitive analysis. I really agree with not looking at the competition when wanting to rethink the business model or big strategy.

    My son's Canadian video game designer is brilliant - they give out the game free for a weekend and allow it to be open so that people can rewrite code and give feedback over two days. My son "works" at this over the weekend and is also now wanting to buy the game. Now that is good client research.
    • Anonymous
    I agree with #9. Market research, used well, can be extremely powerful and it is often not enough simply to ask for opinion. Market research covers a far wider spectrum than this.

    Small-scale qualitative behavioural studies can be just as illuminating (if not more so) than giant trackers.

    MR is certainly not the be-all and end-all but used wisely it can help inform strategic decision making and remains, in my view, very relevant in the current climate.
    • Ron Kurtz
    • President, American Affluence Research Center
    I am amazed that anyone would even question the value of consumer opinions.

    Admittedly there are some limitations to consumer research. The first is the creative and analytical ability of managment to structure the proper research and then to correctly interpret it.

    The second is that consumers are typically not very good at imagining something that does not exist. They are better at reacting to things and defining their "problems" that they would like to see resolved or alleviated.
    • Phil Clark
    • Clark & Associates
    The other day I was at a department store. My wife was complaining about the selection of clothes. She said their was nothing to buy. I notice most tops, skirts and dresses were flowery. Over the hour and half I stood there I noticed only one of about 60 customers wearing anything similar to what was on the racks. Everyone else was wearing solids...no flowers or stripes. I wonder if the purchasing agents actually watch what people wear that visit their stores? I noticed most people walking out empty handed.

    Bottom line, the customers were telling them by their actions what they wanted. Was the store listening? Flowers may have been the "fashion of the year" but no one was buying. Out of curiosity I asked the younger ladies at work what guides their choices in clothes. They say they cannot afford to buy a lot of clothes that cannot be worn at work. The more solid and basic colors are easier to mix and match
    and look more professional. Hmmmmm.

    It is important to know your customers...better than they know themselves. The skill is developing a staff of people who can watch and evaluate customers to find what they really want and will buy.

    The customers have the final choice. They will tell you through behavior what they really want...not necessarily by answering marketing questions.

    Be careful that corporate blindness and processes prevent you from seeing your customer. We often shape questions from our viewpoint not the customers and that gets us in trouble. I think it was Einstein who said he wished he was smart enough to even know what question to ask. That should be on every marketer's desk.
    • Andy Robin
    • MBA1980
    In the semiconductor business for 30 years, I noticed that customers were only good at saying they wanted "faster, lower power, less expensive, and more fully-featured products," but had no sense when it came to entertaining tradeoffs. One had to present a pretty good idea of a final product to customers, embodying tradeoffs made by the semiconductor supplier, to get their useful reaction. That said, one still had to spend a lot of time with customers to get a good feel for what things seemed more or less important to them from a qualitative standpoint.
    • Paul T. Jackson
    • Owner - Information Consultant, Trescott Research
    I can't really comment on customer opinion as a marketing tool for new products. From experience I can very well understand, and comment, that customer experience is the most important thing a company needs to pay attention to, of which, many of the "too large to fail" companies seem not to give a damn, and dismiss the customer completely.

    I see small businesses fail to gain customers because of bad customer experience...customers who then tell their friends about it. I've seen people avoid buying, no matter what the need, at large companies like Sears, Qwest, Clear, Facebook, etc. because of bad experience, and I see people leaving the church because of bad experiences.

    The number and variety of bad experiences may be with the product, with support, or just rude behavior by someone representing the company.

    The opinions of the customers regarding experience is paramount and I find companies seem to be doing less and less research in this area. There are a few who ask customers to take a survey about their experiences, but all of the ones I've seen seem to be like filling out a political questionnaire...not relating to a person's individual and particular issue.
    • Tom Dolembo
    • NewNorth Institute
    "There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after." --J.R.R. Tolkien

    To imply that Apple doesn't slavishly and momentarily access customer opinion is off. They live and breathe with their customers, and have an almost viral connection to them. Jobs isn't your average suit.

    But customer research is often just plain bad stuff, motivated by executives so out of touch they have no idea who the customer is let alone what to ask. Professionals in the game can and often do offer up amazingly well crafted inaccurate market scenarios, identify absurd markets and products, and verify whatever opinion they are paid to affirm. It might be like Demming's "the existence of a quality control department is a sure sign of a sick company."

    If you need to hire independent professional research to tell you about your customer, it's a sure sign you are in for a nasty market shock no matter what they tell you. Apple's customers are embedded in the company culture, flood the company with advice and ideas every microsecond, flesh and muscle. Listen to Frodo.
    • Doug Burns
    • Retired
    Let us assume that the goal is to provide a product or service that meets a consumer need or desire. I have found this to be a true purpose of business (as opposed to any means to maximize profit).

    Research to understand the playing field beforehand is always valuable. Beyond that, in my opinion and based on my experience, there are two basic approaches. One is to address a need or desire consumers are aware of in which case testing consumer approval is valuable. The other is to create an awareness of a product or service that you feel will address a consumer need or desire they may not be aware of. Testing here is valuable too.

    Key is that the research be done in a scientific way, i.e. that you not skew the research through the wording of questions or other means to "verify" a preconceived outcome.

    Of course, you could forego the research if you feel you understand the market and your customers well enough already and trust your informed "gut" (an HBS tradition) and your track record. This is usually the case with small businesses where resources may not be available to do research on a scale where the sample is large enough to be meaningful.

    In my career, I have used both approaches with about equal success. It all is relative, isn't it?
    • Margie Parikh
    When not one or two but several industry players downplay market/consumer research, and when this is confirmed by academics, it might be taken as a happy tiding.

    Perhaps it is an indication that the industry is shifting from the phase when most attention was paid to the features of the product to the phase when most attention is being paid to the conceptualizing or re-conceptualizing of the product.
    • Maree Conway
    • Owner and Principal, Thinking Futures
    I don't think I've every seen a market research survey that has ever asked customers to "imagine how to create uncontested market space".

    If you actually asked that question in a survey - something along the lines of what do you think the next big development will be, or what trends should we be watching to develop our next product, or simply, what do you hope we develop, we might get some customer insight into where the next 'uncontested market space' will emerge.

    We should never assume that because customers want 'more for less' that they cannot think about what's coming next if given the opportunity. I suspect (and happy to be corrected) that most current market research focuses on the present and that won't get you anywhere near 'uncontested market space', which is all about the future.

    Ask customers what they think about the future rather than the present, and we might get some very useful ideas.
    • Lance Lawler
    • Managing Partner, Pacific Radiology
    Provided your competitors are as competent as you are, they are just as capable of gleaning information from your customers and likely to come to similar conclusions. So yes, you have to listen to your customers to stay in the game, but any organisation happy with that is probably not destined for ongoing success.

    That is not to say that customers are of no value in helping shape our future direction; we are all part of the human condition after all. They are just as likely to be the catalyst for real disruptive innovation as anyone or anything else, we just have to learn how to listen to them at a level that feeds our own creative centers.
    • Vanitha Rangganathan
    • Malaysia
    The day we start questioning the value of customers' opinions is perhaps the day we should stop making our products. Customers are the very essence and the greatest catalyst of any product cycle. Take away the customer and you have no product.

    I am sensing a decline in respect towards customers' emotional appeals. Manufacturers are somewhat regressing into a very harsh 'here's my product and it has all these superior features, take it or leave it' mentality. Jobs' flippant reaction is very telling of this. While sales of the product may still reflect a robust following, I'm quite certain that Apple has ruffled many a feather along the way (unless you're a completely emotionless human being, of course). It's sheer arrogance to continue in this direction - whether or not profits project otherwise.

    An organisation has a responsibility towards its customers. Towards its physical as well as its psychological needs. No amount of market research and R&D can redeem customers' trust once this responsibility is forsaken. A customer's opinion does matter and the organisation's responsibility in simply acknowledging it will inspire trust to a certain degree.

    Loyalty of any kind will be impossible if opinions are ignored.
    • Ashok Rangaswamy
    • Director, AECOM India
    Necessity is the mother of invention. This need or necessity is from feedback from the customer. And that innovation allows the product to be finetuned to sustain and grow.

    For products to sustain and grow, customer feedback is essential.
    • John Heng
    • Director, Living By Design Limited
    In the world of design, form follows function in that function is invention and form emotion. Great designs do not ask for customer response prior to launch because the process is such that the product and its use have not yet been conceived by any future user. The designer is the catalyst of having searched for gaps to create a yet-to-be-discovered function that can be formed to excite, deliver USP's and have a meaningful place in society.
    • Chintamani Rao
    • President, Media Direction
    You rightly mention Sony, but the reason for not asking consumers was not arrogance, it was pretty much on the lines of Youngme Moon's thinking.

    If you ask people what they want, they can only tell you within the framework of their own experience. That can only lead to a better mousetrap, not to the breakthrough thinking that led to the horseless carriage.

    That is why, as Akio Morita explained: "Our plan is to lead the public with new products rather than ask them what they want. The public does not know what is possible, we do." And Apple is the new Sony.

    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.

    Nor is new product development the only reason to seek customer opinion. You ask, 'Is it possible that "asking the customer" about anything of strategic importance is on the wane?' It seems to me that listening to the consumer at all is on the wane: when a few hundred mothers complained that new Pampers Dry Max was giving their babies a bad rash, a P&G spokesman told Bloomberg, "We're insulted that someone would imply that our products are dangerous." Yes, P&G.
    • Ravindra Edirisooriya
    • Senior Accounting and Finance Major, Missouri Southern State University
    Professor Heskett was concentrating on the high value, high end, and branded product market when he posed the question "What Is Customer Opinion Good For?" The answer to Professor Heskett's question also depends on who is driving the process of creating a new product or service. For example, why is Microsoft not Apple? Is Apple becoming more like Microsoft?

    Microsoft and Apple were in different phases of the company lifecycle and they had contrasting product development processes. In Microsoft, product managers have lot more decision making freedom in developing the product while Mr. Gates' role lately was more of bring in the best brains as the product mangers. In Apple, Mr. Jobs was in control of the product development process but it seems with his recent health concerns he may have relinquished some of the decision making freedom to the product mangers, like Mr. Gates, whom he expected to do as comprehensive jobs as he would do on product development. The product development decisions were decentralized in Microsoft and they were centralized in Apple.

    When Microsoft releases a new product or new version of an existing product people expected glitches and patches and frequent updates because it was the culture in Microsoft. When Apple releases a new product or new version people expected perfection and something new because of the great innovator status of Mr. Steve Jobs and the culture in Apple was an overdrive to perfection. People saw Apple as a little ahead of the product development curve while others was a little behind the product development curve playing catch up. With the antenna-gate Mr. Jobs' first reaction was to minimize the severity of the issue by asking consumers to hold the phone in a different way because Apple (culture) could do nothing wrong. Then Mr. Jobs' reversed course and admitted that Apple is human (not perfect) and the phones are not perfect followed by firing the product manager of iPhone 4.

    Mr. Jobs did what he did because in the high value, high end, and branded "phone" market he is the innovator who leapfrogs and people accepted his products like the future of phone technology. Mr. Jobs may read customer input on the "phones" but it may be what is possible in the near future that drives his "phone" development process. When Microsoft created Vista people complained about many aspects of Vista operating system and as you may have seen on news papers and TV, the advertisements acknowledged that Windows 7 was created to address the Vista short comings. Windows 7 product manager(s) read customer input on Vista and incorporated it in Windows 7 because Windows 7 is not leapfrog technology.

    What is Mr. Jobs' thinking for iPhone 5? Can tech savvy customers give him a hand now that he is human?
    • Anonymous
    The very essence of sustainable business is the perfect fusion between evolving customer needs and company capabilities. I agree that customers tend to give opinions based on the current environment; however, quite often it is the researcher that lacks intelligence/skill or the marketer that has failed to clearly define the current or anticipated target market and not the respondent that is lacking vision when responding. It is impossible for executives and/or new product developers to keep abreast with the nuances of change, solely from the distant ivory towers.

    Therefore, smart research, integrated intelligently with practical business tools, is definitely needed (selective, relevant, well-timed, clearly understood, properly used and correctly applied); at the discretion of the astute marketer. Research is not a matter of ticking a box in the company process; it's the way that certain things need to be done. It's arrogant to assume that even the brightest and most experienced minds have the sustained ability to bridge the knowledge gap without aid of some sort. Naturally, the identification of white spaces and new categories would adopt a different set of rules; however concept testing is never a bad idea prior to investment and company exposure.

    Powerful research is as much a science as what it is an art. Creativity and customisation are critical to the outcomes. Let's not forget the wealth of knowledge that can be found in proper desk research.

    The first problem in modern research is the cost-leadership approach that is adopted by most research practitioners - margin squeeze in a highly completive environment; compounded by the recessionary environment. Fine art does not come out of a factory.

    The second problem is the fact that the barriers to entry are low, allowing the crafty salespeople to worm their way into the research industry with impressive multimedia pitches; overshadowing the real research scientists/artists who may appear dull and expensive upfront; price is myopically prioritised over value.
    • V P Kochikar
    • Assoc. Vice President, Infosys Tech
    Professor Heskett,

    It's true that traditional marketing research misses many customer needs. But the problem perhaps lies in the way traditional marketing research frames its methodology.

    Asking the customer what they want may frequently end up missing many opportunities, simply because many customers lack the imagination, sophistication or the patience to tell you what they want. Instead, working with the customer to jointly explore what may meet their need is likely to be the most productive route.

    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.
    • Rakesh Gupta
    • BD Manager
    There are two general categories, which are relevant in this discussion of value of customers' opinion: 1) Product Development; 2) Strategic Planning.

    As far as product development is concerned, I believe more and more people are adopting the stage gate product development funnel, heavily involving inputs from customers. At the initial "fuzzy front end", the (VOC) "Voice of Customer" techniques are applied to not only understand but also prioritize customer needs. Once again, customers are involved at the concept screening and features trade-off steps.

    After selecting the markets they want to play in, strategic planners increasingly use various interactions with potential customers before they recommend mid terms strategic priorities for their organizations. Customer Satisfaction surveys and Net Promoter Scores are increasingly used as an indicators to gauge future growth and companies are so convinced of this that they even tie up individual performance reviews to these ratings.

    Almost all companies include "Customers are our priority" among their core values! Of course, the management will make sure that those core values are in some way gets incorporated into your day to day functioning.

    Then, the relevant question to ask is whether involving the customers' opinion effective? Did it help you generate more sustainable revenues and profits? Whatever you spend on the consumer research payback better than your internal rate of return (IRR)?

    Most will agree with me that answers to these questions is an overwhelming NO. To see the corroborating evidence to this thesis is to look no further than the result of most product developments projects, which have many lofty goals but end up with reverse engineering of existing competitors' products.

    At the same time, you can also argue that there are good numbers of companies who have been using similar approaches (Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, etc.) for decades and have been very successful with these.

    Hence, the answer lie not so much in consumer market research itself but more on how effectively you are collecting and incorporating into your model. For example, you can ask customers, what their pain points are and arrive at the underlying needs. However, you should NOT ask, what features the products should have. It is the job of product development team to translate those needs into products.

    How many companies just pay lip service to customer supremacy to whatever activities they are planning? How many of these companies really invest in training their folks so that they can use these tools effectively? How many of these initiatives are just "fade of the month"?

    In view of the discussion above, it would seem logical to conclude that customers' opinion will always matter for profitable and sustainable growth, and hence some companies will continue to invest in consumer research. The key will be the people who know how to get it and the processes to incorporate it in their decision making.

    Thank you!
    • Anshul Gupta
    • Student & Entrepreneur, MDI Gurgaon, India
    Innovations: Whether disruptive/incremental had to pass the test of the market if they were to be called successful innovations!

    Gerald Nanninga & #9, truly touched the core here. Because the fundamental premise of any innovation starts from the word consumption. There has to be a consumer to consume your product.

    We tend to measure/debate every thing in white or black. Remember there is a gray area, too.

    Read all the above comments and of course the post by Prof. James Heskett, and I am sure you will have many contradictory examples.

    Because, when Henry Ford was saying, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses," he himself forgot that Coke had innovated the other way round: "If Coke had not listened to the people, they would still be selling Coke in chemist shops!"

    So, the moral of this debate/ discussion is: "Innovation: whether disruptive/incremental can happen with or without consumer opinion." For example, several BOP innovations are happening because they were asked by the consumer, and you bet if they are not disruptive! Similarly, several incremental innovations are happening without consulting the consumer; seems logical!

    It's now more a matter of "open innovation," where everything can happen. The human mind has a great disguise power. It's the power of identifying patterns. We tend to draw patterns in the behavior of everything. And many a time, this power haunts us in the situations where we are prone to search for a pattern even when there is none!
    • Anonymous
    I totally agree with your thoughts, Professor Heskett. Although customers are at the apex of every business model, when an organization is trying to tread a path on the unknown, it's better to go by the gut. Customers love if they are challenged and consequently taught something new. They are constantly seeking reps who can deliver unique value to them. They often cannot go beyond their problem or think out of the box to devise a solution unheard or unthought of. Hence to improvise an existing solution you need customer opinion. Adopt the incremental approach, but if you looking to invent something new and innovative and disruptive, it's better to apply brute force.
    • Rich and Co.
    • Principal, Rich and Co.
    The challenge seems to be the intent-action gap, which is likely growing.

    The challenge to self-reports, and all the socio-cultural/immediate mood/temporary circumstances/social desirability limits, is also increasing as "customers" become more diverse and time-pressured, etc.

    We are also realizing that buying behavior is highly immediate, episodic and often random. In addition there is increasing evidence that conscious choice-language is predictive of less and less and is largely post-hoc.
    • Magesh
    • Team Leader, Robert Kennedy College
    I see it from 2 perspectives, one as a customer and the other as a producer. As a customer, yes, I always wish that the companies would listen to me. After all, I am the final user of the product, and who else but me would know how best the product works and what is it that will make it perform better.

    But as a producer, I think the customer is not paramount. The strategy of Sony/Apple is no different from that of any other producer in the world. "Let's produce something and then we will convince the customer it is right for you." Why else do we have to spend so much on advertising, PR and promotions?

    Sadly, in this war, the producer is winning. The travesty of each of the battles in this war is that the customer is told that the 'customer is the King' at each stage, so that he never realizes he is actually the slave.
    • Anonymous
    Oh dear. Poor old Maslow is under attack ... and the very essence of marketing and business!
    • Naveen Kashyap
    • Head - R&D Operations
    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. (To quote the late CK Prahalad's words in his book the new age of innovation an N=1, R=G world). So, I want to reformulate the question as 'When should you ask your customer' rather than 'should you ask your customer' and answer them on the follow up. In essence, it's all about timing the question and not about whether or not to ask the customer. The answer is closely tied to the customer's awareness of the need (Unknown, partly known or Known), that the offering is trying to satisfy. My opinion may seem skewed towards B2B product companies.

    Must Ask: When the problem is clearly known
    His opinion matters the most when you have an offering to satisfy his known need &/or is hitting the stands soon (few months) or when you are not the pioneer & want to avoid being a 'me-too' product. In such cases, his feedback on factors like the unsolved problems (meaning known problems), value associated with solving them, possible roadblocks to adoption, gaps in available offerings, preferred pricing levels etc directly shape the product or service. The customer in such cases has sufficient information of the problem that would not need much imagination or make it simpler for the companies to let the customer imagine. The responses would also be useful for improvisation of existing offerings.

    May Ask: When the problem itself is unknown, or only partly known. They point to an underlying 'want' or an undiscovered need. Typical cases could be that a new technology is available waiting to be evangelized or applied. At this stage, the researching company should at least have a functional prototype or sufficient information to allow the customer clearly imagine the problem & solution. Information desired from the customer in such cases would be anything that would help us develop the problem, identify new applications, identifying the best fit solution to the possible problem from a basket of options or alternatives, identifying or quantifying the effectiveness of the solution etc. Such feedback provides valuable insights in offering the right solution. The customers approached for the research should normally be early adopters or at least not laggards and amongst the strategic clients of the corporation.

    Do not /need not ask: Just show them the way ....
    Normally applies to Blue Ocean offerings (which are sure that it is going to be the future need or an existing unknown need) as in the context of Breakthrough Technologies and hi-tech products, which involve paradigm shift in the mindsets. Early revelation of most breakthrough offerings makes it difficult for the customer to imagine the offering and its context, if it is an undiscovered need (which is mostly the case). A customer's opinion in such cases may fail to provide the required insights on account of the customer's inability to 'Imagine the Unimaginable 'or may provide wrong insights, derailing the product conception. In such cases, as Philip Kotler says ..."The most important thing is to forecast where customer is going & be in front of them". Forecasting and making informed guesses may be the best option.
    • Ajay Kumar Gupta
    • Management Professional, ITM, Kharghar, India
    Soliciting customer opinions and research survey help to find out the gap and customers' expectations and experience. And that gap provides space for opportunity either for product or services. The gap also helps to forecast scenario trend for future demand. This helps designer or service provider to design or provde better products and services. Usually customers opinion and market survey divulge the truth about features and functionality of a product in commodotised and competitive market. Designer works on improving functionality and adding/removing features on the basis of gap. This steps or strategy is helpful to gain market competitiveness. However, when designer creates new product design with his ideas, thoughts or creativity, then it becomes innovaton and eventually he enjoys innovation premium in uncontested market. Example of walkman and I phone is based on cutomers expectation and wants. So, comfort, connect and newness
    are essential attribute for any product and services to enjoy competitiveness. For example, how nokia enjoys maximum market share in handset mobile segment. It keep on launching same product with additional features and new design. Desing is always designers thoughts and creativity. Addtional features, reliable functionality and differently look product design has more emotional appeal and advantage over unreliable functionality and similar look design. Newness always pays more and similarity pays less.
    However, when you create new product or services that is not existing or beyond reach of people, you do not need to solicit customers opinion. But in both the cases, there should be need in the market. There are many products or services which were not imagined before it was started. Western union money trasfer, which remits money from abroad to India not only to banks but to postoffices and other small offices. It is the sole remitter today. Similarily, internet banking , core banking, mobile banking are example of designer thoughts or creativity. But they again depend on the customer needs and gap. So, designer should provide faster and ahead than customers' wants and expectations, then only he can enjoy market share and competitiveness.
    • Venkatesh
    • Regional Manager, Coats India
    Prof. Heskett

    As with most situations or questions in the business world, your questions seek to address the duality/ contradictions inherent in the use of customer views/ feedback in product/ service development. There are businesses that are trying to expand faster in a space that other companies are already operating in; there are businesses that want to tap into the latent needs of customers that remain to be addressed by the larger industry. And then within the same industry or a basket of products of services, there are aspects that customers want more or less of...and there are things that they have not vocally asked for, but there is a latent need.

    Companies would do well to use a combination of approaches and balance the requirements of the two and come up with an offer that creates a competitive edge by providing the best in the already existing product/ service space on offer. And offer something that is substantially differentiated by tapping into those needs that customers are yet to voice. Ignore customers at your peril. But remember that while customers are kings, they may not be the wisest..

    Businesses that can well-balance and tap into this dichotomous nature of the market-place are the ones that can succeed in the long term. Sadly, it is seen that companies adopt one approach or the other...the best solution would be to have two teams that work on these different aspects of product/ service development and balance the need to do both; in some situations, more of the first and less of the second; in others, more of the second and less of the first....

    It is all a question of degree, and it is easier said than done to identify how far one must go in listening to or ignoring the customer's voice.

    Bangalore, India
    • Wendell Law
    • Director, Technical Services, Avionics Specialist Inc
    Customer opinion is only one tool that needs to be addressed when making decisions about product or services. Questions to look at are: How was the opinion obtained? How specific is the opinion? Is there a trend in this opinion? Opinions will depend on how much information the individual has on the subject.
    • Mridula Dwivedi
    • Member of Faculty, GD Goenka World Institute, Gurgaon
    I do not know about marketing research but as a consumer I would not book a hotel room anymore without looking at Tripadvisor reviews and comments. And I am quite happy that such comments are available to me at the click of the mouse. It is much better than the past when all that was available was 'branding' and 'advertising.'
    • Al Holmes
    • Partner, SEQUUS
    Our organization conducts 100s of surveys for our clients. Very few are labelled 'market research', but most relate to strategic decisions.
    I found the opening question and the entire range of thoughful responses an outstanding 'expert' forum on the entire field of opinion collecting through surveys. It has caused me to reflect on the half dozen surveys that are currently in development on my desk and will, no doubt, lead me to make some fundamental changes.
    I remain convinced that collecting input from key informants is a valuable process but I most appreciate the distinction drawn by several of the respondents between input to fix something that may be broken or in need of improvement and input to create something that never was to an exploit a vague, emerging opportunity.
    To use the Henry Ford example, if you asked how to improve on the horse drawn carriage, you might get the answer Ford projected. If you presented the vision of a horseless carriage with the power of a 100 horses and asked if there was any interest, the answers might be quite different.

    Thank you for asking the opening question.
    • Gaurav Bhalla
    • CEO, Knowledge Kinetics

    There are several issues at play here. First, let's not leap from Steve Jobs' comment to utility of marketing research and customer opinions. His comment is more a reflection of a product-centric mindset. Regis McKenna referred to this in his book Real Time - "companies love their factories and products more than they love their customers." Steve's statement merely indicates that he loves his product more than his customers who buy the product.

    The issue however, is not Steve Jobs, it is could these same passionate customers have told Apple that they wanted the iPhone and how it should be designed? Absolutely not. That is the biggest myth propagated by MR&CO advocates. But can they respond to prototypes and concepts and say what they like and what they don't? Definitely. Can they behave in ways that can open new vistas that the company had not thought of? Absolutely. Happens every single day; "apps" were a contribution customers made to the iPhone value bundle, not Apple.

    Creating the future is not about asking a question and expecting the customer to give a perfect answer. It is about understanding customers' value trajectories and determining what innovations will better fit these yet-to-occur realities. In my new book, "Collaboration and Co-Creation: New Platforms for Marketing and Innovation," (www.knowledgekinetics.com) I discuss the importance of Listening, Engaging and Responding to customers to shape both current and future value propositions. The customer is an integral part of the shaping process, but there is no attempt at asking a battery of questions in the hope of getting perfect answers.

    Henry Ford was absolutely right when he remarked that if he had asked the customers they would have asked him for a faster horse. But he was also dead wrong about customer value. He was so busy telling and show casing his superior technological achievement that he became both blind and deaf to customer opinions and preferences. Henry "Buck" Weaver, GM's first director of MR, however, had no such compulsions to show and tell. So he spent most of his time listening and talking to customers, understanding their lives, their needs, drawing pictures of future cars, getting their reactions, and redrawing them. I am pretty sure that the phrase "rapid prototyping" didn't exist then. But that's exactly what he was doing. Oh yes, he used questionnaires, they were state-of-the-art then (early 1930's), but he did a lot more than just ask questions.

    It is impossible to shape innovations and future offerings without a knowledge of human needs and how they are evolving. In my book, Collaboration and Co-Creation, I discuss examples of several companies and organizations, like Unilever, Hallmark, Blizzard Entertainment, Phoenix Suns, Crayola, IBM, P&G, BMW-Mini, and Nokia, that have gone beyond traditional MR, but continue to benefit from customer inputs by Listening to them in natural environments, Engaging them in meaningful conversations and events, and Responding through authentic, meaningful action.
    • Adrian Matadeen
    • Group Managing Director, Fatz Express Packaging Services Limited
    What my Customer Opinion Good For? Well Jim this is the only reason I am in business , which is to received advocacy by our customers for the goods and service our business produces, and this occurs if we target each customer and focus in winning a good opinion from them, if the opposite we to occur then this means we are doing the antithesis of our strategy to win hearts , minds and hence the pocket books of our customers, so to me personally our customer's opinion is one of our most valuable homeostasis mechanism to guide our craft on the ocean of opportunity.
    • Narendar Singh
    • Professor, Freelances
    Innovation is mother of necessity. If the product is not going to be sold, then perforce it has to be modified. What is required is the anticipation of the user behaviour, and that comes from the cultural behaviour of the targets. You cannot sell olive oil in Indian Village say around Delhi, similarly Soya in Bengal. Hence, what is innovation then is packaging the behaviour of the target population viz. customers.
    Innovation is in three things organization, process and target. If we combine thesew then there is success.
    • Jay Somasundaram
    • Systems Analyst
    Jonathan Hinkle (17) hit the nail on the head: for disruptive innovation, don't listen to the customer, if it is continuous improvement, then listening to the customer/market makes sense ( As others point out though, one still needs to ask the right questions).

    There is, however, another major reason for listening to the customer - active listening achieves customer satisfaction. As any good salesman knows, an empathetic salesman can easily get away with selling a poor product.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    A business exists because of its customers. Business success
    is well achieved via satisfied customers who give repeat business day after day. With a lot of competition around and providers of same (or similar) products aplenty, it is a matter for indepth examination why would a customer prefer one manufacturer's product over another's. No doubt, product quality matters but we need to agree that customers, and customer opinion, hold a very important place in our lives. The faster we can adapt to accommodate customer needs, the stronger would our company's reputation be.
    Discovering what constitutes good customer service does not happen by osmosis. We have to ask.We must have open ears and learn what our customers want. Yes, there could be some customers who make demands which cannot be met but experience shows such cases are few and can be tactfully ignored.
    If we do not know how we are being perceived by our clients/customers, we do not know if we are truly hitting the mark we set out for ourselves. We have to ask and seek answers. Using today's technology, this can happen by using something as simple as a feedback card, or by using an online service. Plenty of options exist.
    After information has been gathered, it is to be analyzed. Based on this, we can make informed decisions about how we can improve to meet customer's needs, and give them the right impression and opinion of our business.
    In nutshell, customer opinion is a value-addition tool and must never be considered as an unnecessary exercise.
    • Kunalkant Sen
    • founder, iDiya Legal Technologies
    Professor Heskett,
    Customer opinion is good for understanding what they don't want/need.
    Their need/want vary from one to another, but most of them have similar opinion for what they don't want. Lets take example of fashion industry, if the designer ask his customer for new killer design, they may not able to articulate what exactly they want, but they are clear about what they don't.
    It also depend on what exactly you are asking to your customer/potential customer. The real depth answer come out by engaging their customer in fun and intuitive way.

    • Huda Almidani
    • Consultant
    Customers are the most important asset of any company, they are the reason of its survival and prosperity.

    Companies should seek to "understand" the current/future purchasing decision making of their current/potential customers, and this should be the aim of their market research efforts.

    Market Research is not only a survey of opinions or benchmarking of competitors' offerings, but an effort to inspire/tell the company of new endeavors/improvements that strategically fits its capabilities, and redefine its position in customers' mindset and lifestyle in order to acquire most possible customer value.
    • Deepak Alse
    • Manager - Consulting, Wipro Consulting Service
    Opinions, wants and needs are different things to different people. Opinions are articulated wants and needs; Not all customers are articulate.. Is customer opinion important - Yes!! But an understanding of customer wants and needs as well as the difference between a 'want'and 'need' should drive strategic decision-making in context of the customer!
    • Fernandel Salomon
    • President, Fernandel Salomon

    Now more than ever the customer has regained their buying power. The economy is not where it once was and companies can no longer have customer service restricted to a department. The whole company ought to represent the customer! One would hope that customer service is improving in order to attract business, but this may not be the case. New research shows that customer service in some industries are actually worsening. Not smart. Smart businesses know what matters most in hard times and at all times: The Customer.
    Customer Service Excellence - provide it today or prepare to go out of business.
    • Robert Vitkine
    • Directeur Conseil, ADVIR - Paris
    Good ideas and great products arise from strong insight, gutt feel and imagination.
    Bad ideas, lousy products or services can be avoided by serious market research.
    The mixture of both is sound equilibrium : this is what management is about.
    • Mohammad
    • Illyas, ITES
    The conclusion that the importance of MR is waning would be imappropriate, although the author supports it by quoting Steve jobs and further dwelving into various books to support this conclusion.
    However, an important aspect to be considered is that every business has varying degree of "customer inetraction/participation/involvement" (Should coin a new term which would indicate the extent of involvement of the company with its customer i.e. getting insights etc)
    This degree of involvement will be directly dependent on the type of organisation and the strategy adopted by it.
    If it's a niche player, the surrvival/profitability would depend on maintaining teh niche in delevering the products or services.
    If it's in the services sector, the degree of involvement with the customers would be high because the profitability and future of the business would be dependent on how successfully it meets the needs of the customer including the latent needs.
    Now for the latter organisations the criticality of the MR is greater than that required for companies with lesser degree of involvement.

    So a matrix can be developed on the type of industry and the extent to which MR plays a role in that specific industry.
    I would like to add that the quality of market research is also important to bring out the real issues associatedw ith the product or service. Many a times the MR is administered just for having your gut feelings being supported when someting goes wrong and not necessarily with the intention of getting insights from the customers.
    • Dennis Liles
    • Product Analyst
    When looking at the entire continuum of market research, all types and sources of ideas should be considered. Some of the previous comments about customers and consumers not understanding their true needs smacks of arrogance and a fundamental misunderstanding of how to get to the core issues. While it's true that consumers can't help with identifying advanced technology, but the real value is knowing what keeps them up at night and more importantly "what they don't want".

    As anyone who has been involved in product development can tell you, there is a chasm between market research and the realized product. I would be willing to bet that in the case of Apple's 4G phone, someone well below Steve Jobs tried (and failed) to get the issue fixed before it became public.

    Although Professor Heskitt's article focuses on consumer/customer market research validity, the successful product launch consists of three key elements:
    1. Market research from all sources, consumers and customers included.
    2. A discplined product development process.
    3. Everyone, from the CEO on down needs to park their egos at the door. How many potentiallly great products have been derailed due to corporate infighting and turf wars?

    If these three rules were adhered to by Apple, consumers might be able to hold their new Iphones any way they wanted.
    • Aaron Gong
    • Project Manager, adidas China
    For sure a business needs to listen to customers and listen carefully. But this is not good enough. We need to think beyond what customers are telling us, and also take action faster and smarter than competitors do.
    • Dapo Ipadeola
    • ASM, PZ Cussons
    Innovation and creativity can both be enhanced or stagnated by customer opinion. It could be tough for an RD specialist to see his latest idea killed before it even hits the market because the company chooses to rely on customer opinion which may not be favourable.
    Many customers do not know exactly what they want. It takes a good filtering system to sift customer opinion and not be misled. Yet many innovations have come through responding quickly to consumer needs. There comes a need for a balance.
    My take is customer opinion when adopted through the lifetime of a product and appropriately deployed can help keep the product abreast or probably a little ahead of industry. How do you react appropriately to customer opinion?
    A number of products have been developed bottom-up by looking at the trend of customer opinions and building a straight fit for their needs.
    Great innovators always have dreams/brain waves which a lot of customers may not be able to take yet. Requesting opinions early on in development and using such opinions to modify and add-on while keeping the core concept may be a great way to innovate. Your product would come out to a grand reception reducing costs of initial trials and marketing.
    • Maria Botta
    • Freelance Producer, EMBA Student
    Working in advertising and entertainment over the past 20 years I have seen "analysis paralysis" predominate, especially in certain categories like packaged goods - in these categories you rarely see true "Blue Ocean" products. This is due to CMO's CYA tactics - "if the research says it's good, then it has to be good, I can prove it". But this brings up a whole slew of other topics such as innovation, truly innovative "Blue Ocean" products come from companies like Apple who rely more on imagination of what could be, rather than on research into what has been.
    • Dave Schnedler
    • President, Corporate Planning Forum
    Dr. Heskett, I certainly share your observation that market research seems to be losing favor.

    I have spent my career in high tech where the debate is especially relevent -- how useful is customer input on something which is completely new?

    I would like to propose that if the purpose of the market research is to develop a very deep understanding of the customer's desires, motivations, pain points, etc. If one can develop an imaginative understanding of the customer's needs then one can imagine how new technology can enrich the life of the customer.

    This is hard, and since we are talking about insight and understanding we are talking about conclusions that are not statistically valid.

    I believe that Steve Jobs is one of the most creative and exciting visionaries of our age. Although I am told that he is not an enthusiast for traditional market research, he possesses two qualities that make him truly unique. First, he is able to recognize unexpressed needs and desires -- he has a very deep understanding of how to enrich people's lives. Second, he has the self confidence to act upon his convictions. Whether it was the color iMac, the iPod, the iPhone or the iPad, no team that I have ever been associated with had the courage to act so boldly and to be so different.

    Market Research as prescribed by the high priests of research just may not be the best approach for knowing one's customer well enough to anticipate and solve problems that he/she cannot even express.
    • ken ackerman
    • sr. janitor, ackerman co.
    It depends on whether you are talking about a product or a service. The consumer may not be an expert on product design, but he certainly knows the difference between good and bad service. If you are in a service business, asking the customer for feedback can keep you ahead of competitors, and it will also expose problems before they become bonfires.
    • Mark Earls
    • Herdmeister, HERD
    Good question and some good comments all round.
    However am struck by a couple of things in the general thinking around consumer behavior

    i. Does individual customer "opinion" precede behavior and shape it in a causal manner? Or, does opinion come after the fact of behaviour? If the former, fine, let's ask them or find ways to understand their opinions; if the latter, let's at least take a deep breath before we ask individuals what they think?

    ii. Equally, how many of the choices consumers make are actually independent individual ones based on qualities and characteristics of the product and how many are shaped by the choices of others?

    If the former, then again, asking opinions of individuals could be of real help; however, if it is the latter (and at least one answer here suggests that this is much more common than we've tended to imagine or admit) then asking individuals about their opinion on a product or service is likely to be unhelpful if not downright misleading.

    In thinking through such practical questions, it's always worth making sure we've got our map of human behavior correct - humans, after all, are supposed to be Marketing's specialist subject!
    • David Zemanek
    "Imagination is more important that knowledge for knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand." - Einstein

    It would be wise to assume that customers know what they don't like about the products they use. It would also be unwise to assume that customers have the imagination to know what would be better. This echoes the Henry Ford quote from the previous commenter that if Ford had asked his customers what they wanted they would have said faster horses.

    Apple engineers, and those in the mass-market retail space, have an advantage in that they happen to be users of their products and work and live around other users who would have relevant opinions on any new wiz-bang features. All they have to do is watch their fellow employees using the products in the lunchroom and at work, so it's not true to say Apple does "no market research"

    For those who have to create products for a niche market the task is more challenging. In these cases, market research is critical, however, while it still takes understanding what the user wants, it requires imagining something that your customer will actually purchase that both doesn't exist, and that your customer can't imagine that they will want.
    • Tony Wanlessw
    • CEO, Knowpreneur Consultants
    Having just completed a study of product development successes and failures, I can assure you that the customer's voice is very important. A large factor in many failures was the lack of market feedback. Too often, it seems product developers, especially in the small business area, arrogantly decide they know better because they are well versed in the technology of product development. They understand, of course, that they must conduct market research, but it is usual superficial, and, importantly, secondary research into the market, not into the customer's mind.
    As others have pointed out, there are two important data streams when developing a product: One is customer problems for which they have no solution, and the other is whether the proposed solution is better than the alternatives.
    This is why product development must involved continuous and iterative customer research -- get into the minds of the buyer, so to speak. So, prototype, test, refine, test, refine some more, test some more. Change where necessary.
    • Anonymous
    This is the most interesting part of dealing with people ... shareholders, customers, employees and etc.

    1. there will be only a few person with the same exact wants/needs and agenda
    2. most would hope to "win" ... that mean more value at lower price
    3. most assume that they are objective and not emotionally bias
    4. with information freely available and most quite well trained on dealing with companies ... most will try to "cheat" the survey

    So the most important things in gathering opinion is knowing which tools and how to design/conduct the survey in each scenario ... there is no one tool to be used.

    That's why some of the so call "gut feel" or "experience" are better ... which is depending on a few "experienced" person views and observations rather than the "average" customers.
    • Mike Chaisson
    • Marketing Manager
    The problem is not traditional market research into customer opinion. Rather there is not enough investment in retaining quality researchers and insufficient funding for comprehensive investigations. While Apple is hot today it floundered for the better part of two decades and SONY has yet to recover from its apparent arrogance of knowing what is best for the market.

    I am a fan of following intuition, but intuition can be educated by research. Motorola had 90% of a winning blue water strategy with Iridium unfortunately their market research was no where near as sophisticated as their gadget.

    Complex and innovative business plans call for sophisticated comprehensive research.
    • Yedendra Chouksey
    • Professor, International School of Business and Media, India
    I believe in Mahatma Gandhi's dictum that a business person must worship his customer because "he is the purpose of your business". Years later, Deming, the father of Total Quality Management, reiterated that the customer satisfaction, not profit, should be the goal of an organisation--a proposition which always holds good in the long term as the experience of those selling in the monopolistic markets proved. They sold inferior products at high prices but when competition came in, they were wiped out first.
    Even those who crate a new product have to depend on customer response to gauge its acceptability and attend to unforeseen glitches discovered in their use to modify or replace the product.
    In fact in the product-profit chain the customer is the ubiquitous link no business strategist can afford to weaken.
    • Jiten
    • Market Research Manager, Bajaj Auto Ltd
    Dr. Heskett,
    First of all congrats for opening up such a provocative, relevant topic on the board. Being in the market research profession for last 10 years I have faced this question time and again.

    Should you research your offerings, your communication, your packaging? Or should you rely on your intuitive abilities and take the plunge? Had we listened to market research, our company possibly may not have been able to bring Pulsar motorcycle to market. This is a brand that went on to become the market leader in that respective segment in a flat 3 months and almost single handedly created the category, and remains an aspiration for all average motorcycle buyers in India. Market research revealed that this would not work.

    To my opinion, one should have a clarity on where to use market research and where not. Market Research can not generate a good communication story for you, it may not be able to tell you which kind of new technology to be brought into market, and it can not tell you what volumes a completely new kind of motorcycle will generate.

    In short, anything which is new and generative in nature can be very well put out of purview of market research.

    But than what is it that market research is good for?

    Market research works best when it corroborates the situation practiced in real life. i.e. it can help you to understand the product irritants and hence product improvements. It can certainly throw the new insights on how best to sell your product. What is your customer? Where to reach your customer? What channels and means to adopt to reach him? What tonality of message works well with him? What kind of communication would alienating? etc etc..

    Think of the great words by Ogilvy: "The customer is not a moron, she is your wife." Doesn't that sum it up?