Don't listen to your customers - what they tell you they want is not what they need

Don't listen to your customers - what they tell you they want is not what they need

Published on 10 July 2018

In the social media era, engaging your customers and building close relationships with them is often considered a necessity. Brands can no longer afford a luxury to treat their clients like anonymous masses, meant to quietly consume messages, but unable to respond. People can voice their opinions easily and they sure like doing so. However, is it possible to rely on such feedback too much? I think it is, and here's why:

Customers aren't necessarily innovators

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

The above quote, although overused and most likely falsely attributed to Henry Ford, has been the starting point of many discussions centered around customer feedback and its value to a business.

When you face a decision that's going to affect your sales (or any other metrics that you might be using to measure success), simply asking people what they want is tempting - especially when you already have a considerable audience at your disposal on various social platforms, forums, etc. Throwing some questions at them is easy and free, and if, as the saying goes, two heads are better than one, then surely hundreds or thousands of heads are better than two, right? Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that.

Say you're developing a new product or service. Will customer participation be beneficial at every step of the process? Could it possibly become harmful instead?

These are questions that many tried to answer before, including authors of the study “The Effectiveness of Customer Participation in New Product Development: A Meta-Analysis”, published in the January 2016 issue of the Journal of Marketing. It's a long and detailed report with multiple interesting findings, but here's one exempt I personally found the most relevant:

"Indeed, many firms have found it difficult to leverage customer participation toward NPD (New Product Development) success. One reason for this is that customers can sometimes be limited sources of innovation because of their lack of valuable creative ideas (...) or inability to clearly articulate their latent needs".

Vocal minority may not represent your target group

Every brand wants to have fans. Fans are awesome! They will care about your product, talk about it, recommend it and support it. But they'll also want to be involved and most likely will be eager to point out your mistakes. Or what they consider to be ones. Should you listen?

Before you rush into changing things based on fans' feedback, I suggest that you confront it with some hard data. To illustrate why, let me tell you about a case I encountered some time ago in fashion blogosphere.

It started with Torrid, a well known clothing brand, beloved by fans not only for its trendy and fashion-forward selection, but also for company's values, which put a lot of stress on diversity and inclusivity. This encompasses accommodating various body shapes and sizes, up to size US 30, to be exact. Therefore, when in 2018 Torrid conducted its 3rd annual model search, some fans voiced their disappointment with the results. According to them, women picked to present clothes on the site didn't represent the vast majority of customers, due to being on the smaller end of the sizes spectrum and mostly blessed with the most desired hourglass body type. Of course, that's not just Torrid's issue specifically, similar comments appear regularly on other brands' social media as well. Many people claim that they'd be more inclined to make a purchase if they saw models who looked more like them - be it bigger, shorter, or with a different skin tone.

So why aren't clothing brands listening? Their customers are very vocal about what they want, so implementing these changes should raise sales considerably, wouldn't it? Apparently not.

Popular lifestyle blogger and marketing specialist, Kellie Brown, who had an opportunity to work with some unspecified plus-size clothing brand, asked them the very same question. According to her, they responded that "we tried to use bigger girls, they [customers] don't buy it!". And there was substantial data to prove this claim as well, coming from A/B tests that had been conducted in the past. In some cases, tested versions with bigger models generated as much as 60% less clicks and even fewer sales!

Let's consider a completely different industry – video games. Successful companies gather thousands of fans on their forums and social media, as well as external platforms such as Reddit. Those fans are often involved in discussions about games even years before they're actually released. And boy, does it get heated sometimes. As developers release more information about the game, some design decisions prove to become quite unpopular among fans. Yet, despite overwhelming negative feedback, they are rarely changed*. Why?


Again, while "thousands of forums users" may sound impressive, AAA games need to sell millions copies to be considered successful. Hardcore fans are important, but they're just not a big enough audience to secure company's future. Moreover, now that player's activity in games can be easily tracked, data shows that the minority of most dedicated players play the game differently from everyone else. This means that their needs may differ and can't be easily expanded to all potential end users.

*Not to say that it’s always the right thing to do. In many cases it proved to be a mistake, but since it's not a gaming blog, I won't delve into it.

People want to be helpful... so they criticize

People want to be helpful... so they criticize

I used to work in an interactive agency. When we would present a design to our client, one of the most dreaded sentence we could hear was: "I'm going to show it to my wife/uncle/brother in law/grocery store lady and get back to you with some feedback!". We would already know that we were about to receive a long list of changes, sometimes making perfectly good sense, but often going against the established principles of the project and/or contradicting one another.

Don't get me wrong - it's not that we would dismiss these people's opinions because they weren't specialists and we thought we knew better. It was easy to understand our client's need to get more feedback, especially from important people in their life. But it's just not the best way to go about it, for several reasons:

  • People giving such feedback may not represent the actual target group, therefore their needs and perceptions may differ.
  • Even if they are a part of a target group, in these circumstances they're not using the product/website like they normally would.
  • This happened more often than you'd think: the most critical people actually liked the product but thought that saying so would make them seem uninvolved and unhelpful. They tried hard to find flaws in it so they could suggest some improvements and feel useful.

This is why tests (such as various user experience tests, focus groups etc) exist, and knowing how to conduct them is a skill on its own. There are whole companies specializing just in that particular task, and I'd strongly recommend taking advantage of their experience whenever possible.

Strength in numbers

There's still much more that could be said about customers' feedback and its value. What I've just shared with you comes from my personal experience with various types of businesses and some reading I did on the subject over the years. To wrap it up, I certainly don't think that you should just ignore what people tell you, put your fingers in your ears and go "LA LA LA LA LA" while you keep doing your thing. Even Ford ultimately lost its initial position on the market due to failure to adapt to customers needs. If people care enough to give you feedback, that's an advantage and privilege. Just remember to use it wisely! Get to know your target group really well, test everything you can and keep an open mind when it comes to results.