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Listen to your customers - sometimes they are right | Cypress Semiconductor

Listen to your customers - sometimes they are right

Apple Inc. is a company famous for saying that they don't ask their customers what they want (at least Mr. Jobs has said so). Their theory is that if you constantly deliver something the customer has never had before you cannot ask them if they want it. While this seems to work for Apple, I would argue that they don't strictly ignore their customers, since doing so would eventually make them go away, but they instead prevent the feedback from customers to strictly drive new products. But Apple does obsessively deliver a fantastic experience for their customers. And Apple is not afraid to admit (to themselves at least, shown by their actions if not verbally) when they make a mistake. For an example, check out the latest version of the iPod Shuffle, and compare it to the version it replaced and the one before it.

The ugly truth is that we must talk to and listen to our customers, but the customer is only right when they actually vote with their wallets - and on that note one must agree that Apple is delivering. Listen aggressively, and then decide what the most important response needs to be.

Recently I re-visited some customers I had been with only 6 months earlier and found that I was the only one saying something different - the product I presented 6 months ago changed drastically, but, surprise, what those customers were saying did not. I didn't listen the first time, but this time what they said aligned with the product (in it's latest incarnation) I was presenting. And unlike the last time, I was receptive to their message. The difference was that I didn't feel this time I had the "final" answer, i needed their input,  and it was amazing what I heard.

As a marketer, my customers often are the end customer, but everyone on any project at any level has customers, and in most cases we all make the same mistake - we let our "vain brain" filter what we hear in order to reinforce our personal conviction (make us feel  better, thus the vanity) and as a result filter out valuable feedback from the customer. Two separate books I recently read about the human brain dealt with this phenomenon: the first was "How We Decide" by Jonah Lehrer (www.jonahlehrer.com/books) and the second was "A Mind Of Its Own" by Cordelia Fine (www.cordeliafine.com/a_mind_of_its_own.html). The phrase "vain brain" comes from Ms. Fine's book. Both books describe (and warn) of the human brain's ability to convince itself that it is right. And while this isn't all bad, it keeps one pushing hard on a problem that seems insolvable, if the brain is convinced it is right, it can filter out all opposing views, to its owner's detriment, which is what I did.

Both authors provide examples and come to a similar conclusion - the better one understands their "vain brain" the better one can identify the dangerous situation of extreme conviction. When you are most convinced something is true, you must also be most wary and questioning of the grounds for your conviction. In my case, my conviction was groundless (the project was barreling ahead to it's final milestones, one of which involved customer adoption) and because I didn't realize it, 6 months later I finally heard what the customer was saying. They didn't want the original project as presented. They told me so, so I sold them on its benefits, convinced they would come around once the product was released. Guess which one of us was right.

I have a minor obsession with the workings of the human brain, which began after an enlightening class in management in the last millennium. In that class I first understood the concept of projection, which is the human tendency to apply one's own motivations and convictions to others' behavior - in this case it was others I had tried to lead in a project. I couldn't understand that the more my project was falling behind and I shared this with a team member, it urged me to work late nights and weekends, but he didn't seem to be fazed. While I never suggested he should increase his hours or intensity I was frustrated when he didn't. It was only natural to work harder and longer when a project deadline was looming and we were behind - at least for me. My epiphany in that class was that I had expected that team member to react exactly as I would, which of course is ridiculous if you think about it. I didn't.

For more on the Apple iPod Shuffle story, take a look at this wikipedia article (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPod_Shuffle). The first generation Shuffle is best described as a white USB flash drive with music player buttons, released in January 2005. The second generation, release 18 months later, looked like an iPod Nano without a screen, although the controls were only tactile. That generation lasted until September 2009, 3 years. The third generation, released March 2009, removed all physical controls from the device, allowing only a special headphone to control it. It was so small that it should have come with a swallowing warning for children under 3. The fourth and current generation brought back the tactile controls of the second generation, but in a package 30% smaller and included the "voice over" feature of its control-less predecessor, arguably combining the best of the second and third generations. Oh, and the latest generation has 4 times the storage of the first generation device at half the price.

Progress doesn't always follow a straight line, but neither does the human brain. Frequent feedback and course corrections can make the path smoother, but only if you really listen. 

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