Stop Listening To Customers… Sometimes

In a recent post, I listed valuable quotes from Steve Jobs. Here’s one of them:

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.

Jobs seems to be saying that you shouldn’t bother listening to customers. Is that what companies should do?

My take: No. Companies should not stop listening to customers. But they do need to understand what they’re listening for and recognize the limitation to some listening systems.

To start the discussion, here’s a basic loyalty model that I like to use. It’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.

Going back to Jobs’ comment, I agree that 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, an Apple phone, or even Apple retail stores. Those “breakthrough” experiences came from understanding what customers really desire. 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 customers’ core needs. But they are weak at uncovering desires. To grow the number of engaged customers, companies need to think of less traditional ways of getting customer feedback 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.

Unfortunately, most companies don’t have someone like Steve Jobs to rely on.

The bottom line: if you listen to customers, you might not hear their desires

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.

9 Responses to Stop Listening To Customers… Sometimes

  1. Joy Levin says:

    Great point! Organizations do themselves a great service if they look beyond satisfaction to desire. What are the emotional benefits your customers are looking for? Getting answers to this questions leads to increased profitability. Thanks for the post!

  2. Chris Severn says:

    Thanks Bruce – it’s an interesting point. The key point for me is one of innovation – it’s hard or impossible to innovate in the way Apple does by asking customers what they want. Those kind of leaps take Steve Jobs-like vision. But I do think that companies can achieve ‘engaged’ levels of customer connection without that kind of innovation – really top quality sales, service, product enhancement, communications etc do lead to engaged customers, and that very much means listening to (and acting on) customer feedback. So I like your model, but would argue that there are 2 routes to the top – which is good news for most companies since there aren’t many Steve Jobs to go around! Regards, Chris Severn, Sydney. (

  3. Ray Brown says:

    Some good thoughts Bruce. I believe listening is an essential part of building a productive relationship with customers. What is at issue is the context of the listening. If you’re looking for “actionable answers” then you will probably be disappointed. If you are looking for “actionable insight” then you can find gold dust. I think value is created at intersection of your knowledge and experience (what Jobs had an abundance of) and the insights gained from listening to the customer. Neither customer nor supplier has all the answers. The value is in the productive interaction between the two. Ray Brown, Melbourne (an Australian flavour to this thread!)

  4. Hi Bruce. Totally agree. Same as Henri Ford once said: “When I would have asked what my customers needed, they would have said a faster horse”. But can you give some advice or pinpoint to a whitepaper which questions are best to use in order to get (more) information about customers desires?
    (And/or more information about ‘ethnography’ in relation to CEM surveys)

  5. Gerard van Os, the Netherlands says:

    Great stuff! Interestingly it is mentioned that companies should considder “… less traditional ways like ethnography …”. In my experience ethnography IS a traditional way, although maybe not in this area. Anyway: I do agree with the statement.

    I like the graph with the arror emerging from “unhappy” and pointing to the “emotional connection”. To me this shows the way it “works” an already exsisting connection between customer and company.

    However, there are always new customers around the corner that don’t know of the company, their products and ther services. So, I’m thinking in the direction of having the three “subjects” expectations, core needs and desires side by side, and from all of these an arrows emerge towards the connection. Depending on de maturity of the product, company and customer, the thinckness of the arrows show what is the more important driver for the customer.

    my two cents

  6. Majid says:

    Bruce, this is a chicken and the egg delimma. It is important to listen to the customer but the key is to have the vision to look beyond their immediate needs otherwise the opportunity for competitive advantage which is short-lived.

    Company has to have the vision and to and has to modify / evolve the vision bring it in alignment wit the needs of the market and the technology at hand.

    Also very important to note that customers hav to be segmented and the revenue model has to be built around the customer type, don’t try to be everything to every user type.


    • Bruce Temkin says:

      Majid: I totally agree with your assessment, but I wouldn’t characterize it as a chicken and egg, since the order of the things isn’t the key issue. It’s moe like a balancing act. You have to tap into an ongoing flow of insights to run your business and you have to tap into a periodic view of customers’ hard-to-articulate desires periodically to evolve the business. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  7. There’s the great product management quote from Henry Ford that speaks to this. “If I asked people what they wanted, they’d ask for a faster horse”. What’s in between the lines is what counts, and understanding that takes a deeper level of analysis.

    • Bruce Temkin says:

      Jason: That’s a great quote; it’s very similar to what Steve Jobs was saying. Thanks for sharing it. If companies want to be great, then they have to meet needs that customers can’t yet articulate.

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