Temkin Group's Bruce Temkin: For a Great Brand, Don't Always Listen to Customers

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Customer Engagement
Customer Experience
Steve Jobs has said: "You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new."

Steve Jobs has said: "You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new."

Wow! Apple has an amazingly strong brand, yet the visionary leader of the company seems to say that listening to customers isn't valuable. Should companies eliminate their customer insight groups and abandon their voice of the customer (VoC) programs?

You'll have to read a bit more to see my answer.
Realities of customer feedback
Before I attack the question about whether or not to jettison customer insight, let's examine a few realities of customer feedback:

  • Customers are grounded in today. Customers aren't very good at projecting the future and even less effective at explaining what they will want when things change.
  • Customers are most articulate about their dislikes. When it comes to bad experiences, customers know it when they see it and are more likely to share information about it. In recent Temkin Group research, we found that 34 percent of U.S. consumers give feedback to a company after a very bad experience, but only 21 percent did the same after a very good experience.
  • Customers are least articulate about their desires. It's very hard to understand what customers truly desire, since they often don't recognize it themselves or limit their focus to match their preconceived view of your company. So, simple surveys aren't very good at extracting this information.
  • Customers aren't designers. Customers can't tell you how to design your products or services. You need to have strong people in your organization that can architect these important experiences.

Now, back to the question. No, companies should not eliminate their customer insight groups and abandon their voice of the customer programs. But they do need to understand what they're listening for and recognize the limitations of some listening systems.

Customer loyalty framework
Here's a basic loyalty model that's based on defining a simple hierarchy of customer needs:

  • Expectations: What customers think they'll get from a company, which is heavily based on their perception of the company.
  • Core needs: What customers want from a company, which is heavily influenced by their perception of what is normal and mainstream in an industry.
  • Desires: What customers really want, which is not based on any company or industry activity and is often difficult for them to articulate.

As companies meet these needs, they build stronger emotional connections with customers. At the highest level, when they meet customers' desires, companies end up with engaged customers--the raving fans that will promote and defend the brand. Under Steve Jobs' leadership, Apple has created many of these raving fans.

The role of customer insight
Going back to Jobs' comment, you can't rely on simple customer feedback to identify their desires. Consumers weren't telling Apple that they wanted a new MP3 player, iTunes, iPhones, iPads, or even Apple retail stores. Those "breakthrough" experiences came from understanding what customers really desire and designing experiences across products and services that cater to those desires. In technology, desires can be even more difficult to articulate because people can't even imagine the possibility of future capabilities.

Most customer listening efforts, which are often part of voice of the customer programs, can uncover expectations and many of your customers' core needs. When implemented correctly, VoC programs can identify places where customers perceive issues and they can help locate opportunities for improvement.

Customer listening efforts, however, are weak at uncovering desires. To grow the number of engaged customers, companies need to think of less traditional ways of getting customer insights to uncover desires, like ethnography. It also helps to have a visionary like Steve Jobs who can envision the potential of technology and the evolution of consumer desires.

A Note on VoC programs
As it turns out, Apple has a very robust VoC program. Apple retail stores regularly survey their customers and track the results across stores. They also review responses with employees in each of the stores. So, even strong brands need to listen to their customers.

But that doesn't mean that companies with VoC programs can rest easy. Most VoC programs are in early stages of maturity. In a recent Temkin Group research report, State of Voice of the Customer Programs, 2011, we found that only 2 percent of VoC programs have reached the highest level of maturity, which we call Transformers.

To get the most from these customer insight efforts, companies need to push their VoC efforts across a range of areas that we call the Six Ds:

  • Detect: Monitor the right feedback at the right time from the right customers and combine it with other key data sources.
  • Disseminate: Put information in the hands of the right people at the right time in the right form so they can act on it.
  • Diagnose: Gain a deeper understanding of problems or opportunities that are uncovered.
  • Discuss: Get the right people from the right organizations reviewing the right information to understand what's affecting customers.
  • Design: Follow user-centric approaches for identifying changes that will improve the customer experience.
  • Deploy: Make ongoing changes to the experiences and the monitoring of those changes.

Closing thoughts
Steve Jobs is an incredibly visionary leader who has been able to forecast the intersection of technology capabilities and evolving human needs while applying a strong design sensibility to that insight. If you have someone like Jobs in your organization, then you may want to let him or her run free. But don't give up on listening to customers; just get more strategic about how you do it.

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About the Author: Bruce Temkin is customer experience transformist and managing partner of Temkin Group, and chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association. He blogs at Customer Experience Matters

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