Listen to Customers, but Translate What They Say

I heard Michael Feuer, founder of Office Max and currently CEO of Max Ventures, LLC, speak last night at a meeting of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Association for Corporate Growth. His rousing speech contained several entertaining stories and valuable nuggets of wisdom for entrepreneurs.

He urged entrepreneurs to listen to customers, but to translate what they are telling you. He explained that when the first Office Max store opened he spent many evenings in the store conversing igcognito with customers. They told him that what they wanted was cheaper, less expensive merchandise. Mr. Feuer translated this to mean "My customers want value," not "My customers want cheaper goods."

A similar point is made in this post from Innovation Weblog:

"Innovation strategy: When listening to customers doesn't make sense

According to John Byrne, writing in the FC Now Weblog, it doesn't always make sense to listen to customers, especially if you want to move in an innovative direction, beyond linear product improvement. John quotes Christene Heckart, VP of worldwide marketing at Juniper Networks, an innovative telecom equipment provider:

'Customers will take you down a status quo path every time. They are after linear improvements. Customers can help you do that. But if you want to hit an inflection point and get non-linear improvement, the worst thing you can do is listen to a customer about what they want. Customers can only think about solutions for problems they know about.'

That's great advice, especially if your strategy is pursuing breakthrough innovation! In reality, however, your business may be focused on linear, incremental improvements in some areas while pursuing breakthrough innovations in other areas. Knowing when to talk to customers about their needs and knowing when to trust your gut isn't easy --but it is essential!"