Don’t Listen To Customers, Understand Them

There’s an interesting article in BusinessWeek about how innovation requires executives to periodically step back from three things: “decision attitudes,” “users,” and “your assumptions.” I really like this quote from Sir Denys Lasdun, the English architect, saying that the architect’s job is to give a client:

Not what he wants but what he never dreamed that he wanted; and when he gets it, he recognizes it as something he wanted all the time.

My take: In a previous post, I discussed the power of an approach called “deliberation without attention.” The idea is similar; step back and let your mind process information in a different way. It’s particularly valuable technique for complex situations. Executives definitely need to learn when to step back and reassess a situation or a decision.

While stepping back from “decision attitudes” and “your assumptions” makes intuitive sense, the idea of stepping back from “users” may seem to conflict with customer-centric behavior. But it really doesn’t.

Breakthrough innovations often address needs that customers can’t articulate with solutions that customers can’t imagine. So customers feedback can not be used to define the requirements. Does this mean that innovation is devoid of customers? No!

Instead of looking at direct responses to questions, breakthrough innovations often require a different type of customer input: Observation. Companies need to understand the core needs and desires of target customers through ethnographic techniques and through observations about larger trends in society (like the rise in social networking) to extrapolate (and hypothesize) what type of offering may “click” with those customers.

Customer feedback plays a very important role in fine-tuning the offering. Once prototypes of the solutions exist, companies need to observe (not just survey) how target customers use them. Keep in mind that customers’ first reaction to those offerings may not be nearly as important as their feelings after using them for a while.

The bottom line: Breakthrough innovations require understanding customers, not listening to them.

About Bruce Temkin, CCXP
I'm an experience (XM) management catalyst; helping organizations improve results by engaging the hearts and minds of their employees, customers, and partners. I enjoy researching and speaking about these topics. I lead the Qualtrics XM Institute, which is the world's best job. We're igniting a global community of XM Professionals who are inspired and empowered to radically improve the human experience. To achieve this goal, my team focuses on thought leadership, training, and community building. My work is driven by a set of fundamental beliefs: 1) Everything starts and ends with human beings, so you need to understand how people think, feel, and behave; 2) XM is a discipline that needs to be woven throughout an organization's entire operating fabric; and 3) Building the XM discipline requires a combination of culture, competency, and technology.

16 Responses to Don’t Listen To Customers, Understand Them

  1. Pierre Roberge says:

    I totally agree with this. I used to work at Cooper ( and am now working in Customer Experience Management. One great tool I use to make that leap from listening to understanding is to use Contextual inquiry (related to ethnographic research) THEN use Personas to encapsulate all those seemingly “soft”, “non-actionable” date collected into a tool able to generate (with Context scenarios) “actionable” design information to improve the experience customers get when interacting with my company.

    One critical aspect for all this to work is time….the brain needs time to deliberate without attention. That does not mean that you need to give your employees time off but there needs to be some delay between customer research and the production of actionable design information. You need the right business culture that will allow enough time for the “diamonds” to form from the atoms of carbon collected and contrary to my analogy, (time) pressure is not the right way of accomplishing that.

  2. Ray Brown says:

    Good post Bruce. Seems to me that there are lots of new skills for businesses to learn so they can cope with a new and evolving market. Perhaps the whole decision making process around the customer needs to evlove too. A good article around design & decision making at

  3. Bruce Temkin says:

    Pierre: Thanks for the feedback and sharing some insights from Cooper. Contextual inquiry is an excellent tool for gathering customer insight.

    Ray: Execs definitely need a new set of skills. Take a look at these items: The 6 New Management Imperatives and The 4 Key Ingredients Of Great Organizations. Thanks for sharing the link to the IDEO article. They provide a lot of great insights on Design Thinking.

  4. lineaist says:

    Marketing Gurus will tell you to think about your customers from when you brush your teeth in the morning to when you brush your teeth at night.

    Not only will your customers appreciate your understanding of them, but they will also enjoy your exquisite hygiene and bright smile!

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  7. Hi Bruce

    My thoughts are that this represents the real need for a separation of the customer service teams and those who determine the customer experience.

    Customer experience is more than just focussing on what people say whilst on the phone, it’s requires a complete operational shift that looks at every customer touch point.

    Great article

    Elizabeth Sealey

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  9. Great article. I agree with you totally on the importance of observation of the customer (user) and of larger trends in society for understanding what the customer (both client and user) want / need. I would say that customer feedback (both client and user) ALONE can not be used to define requirements. The questions should be focused on the problems that have to be solved or the goals the customer wants to accomplish. Unfortunately, in my experience customers are often asked for, or voluntarily provide, the “solution” they want.

  10. pdv says:

    Good Stuff.
    Sitting at an “Innovator” startup right now.
    (and a certain Audrey forced me to read this – lol )

  11. Bruce Temkin says:

    Elizabeth: I agree; customer service groups can’t be on the hook alone for customer experience, they are responsible for only one piece of the experience. And they don;t even control the experience that they deliver. It’s impossible for a customer service organization to deliver consistenly good experiences if the systems are bad, the processes are broken, the business rules are messed up, etc.

    Collette: I’ve seen many companies lose sight of the fact that customers CAN NOT design your products. That’s why I think the new concept “crowdsourcing” is over-hyped.

    Keep up the dialogue!

  12. Ray Brown says:

    Hi Bruce I finally got round to reading your two excellent recommended articles. The 6 New Management Imperatives and The 4 Key Ingredients Of Great Organizations. I think in these articles you have identified both the issues and the opportunities on offer to forward thinking organisations today. Specifically: 1) there are huge opportunities to rethink how we deal with customers; and 2) success requires challenging the status-quo within firms. My team and I are working on a project that we hope will help in these two areas. I would very much like to discuss our project with you, once our working beta site is operational c. mid March

  13. Andy Perkins says:

    Hi Bruce

    I’m not sure the real divide is between listening and understanding. I think it’s more about appropriate selection of research tools and techniques. If the only tool available is a 3″ X 5″ customer comment card it won’t matter how hard we ‘listen’. Similarly, there are situations where an ethnographic study just isn’t the right tool for the job.

    As researchers, we owe our organizations or clients guidance on the most (cost-)effective way to get the input we need for decision making.

    Sometimes that’s a very brief satisfaction questionnaire a la Net Promoter. Sometimes it’s a much more involved study.

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  15. Brian Ramsey says:

    I think listening and understanding a customer go hand in hand. To better understand a client you need to listen to their feedback or wants and needs. Thanks for this article, there was plenty of good advice in this article. Thank you

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