The Customer Isn't Always Right

I get a kick out of business buzzwords. Reengineering. Rightsizing. Repurposing. One of the latest you may have heard bandied about is "Voice of the Customer." It's a phrase that, in fairness, recognizes that companies can go astray by making decisions without fully understanding their effect on those they serve. But I've also heard the term invoked as a way to trump (or delay) an idea born of inspiration or imagination—as if by magically incorporating "the voice of the customer" a company can somehow eliminate risk.

Regardless of whether it's used as an offensive or defensive weapon, the voice of the customer is a double-edged sword. It's not that we shouldn't listen to customers or place special emphasis on understanding their wants and needs, concerns and complaints. It's that we must do so with discernment: Sometimes the customer is just plain wrong.

We've all heard or experienced horror stories of disgruntled customers whose anger turns to abuse. It's a good idea to be willing to walk as far as possible down the Via Mea Culpa with these customers, so long as you draw the line, politely but firmly, when their behavior offends other customers or threatens your staff. The very nature of such interactions makes them easy to recognize. Here are a few further, more subtle instances in which you might want to think twice about how you interpret the voice of the customer.

When they can't know. One way to understand why people purchase products or services is that somebody knows how to make or do something they can't achieve on their own. Your customers know less about the science behind your offering than you do. That means their perceptions of what they want are firmly grounded in what they think is possible, rather than what is truly possible.

A century ago, nobody who drove a horse-drawn carriage thought to ask for a Model-T. A generation ago, nobody who used a pay phone had any idea how soon they would become obsolete. A year ago, nobody knew that they would be redeeming a Groupon this weekend. I certainly think teleportation would beat wedging my way into a crowded airplane seat; as far as I know, that's still in the realm of science fiction and I wouldn't even think to suggest it to an airline during a telephone survey.

When they won't say. Sometimes customers believe they can gain the upper hand in a transaction by being coy. For instance, a good salesperson can walk a prospect through a series of questions designed to lead them to purchase; handled with subtlety, this is an effective way to move someone along. Handled clumsily, however, it raises suspicions and can cause prospects to provide misinformation, from the wrong Zip Code to a phony phone number. Seeking the voice of the customer on advertising can be even more misleading. As my colleague Daniel Andreani quipped: "Asking a consumer about his opinion of your advertising is like asking a deer about the best way to hunt it."

Customers can unintentionally lead us astray as well, such as when we ask them to predict their future behavior (see The Perils of Market Research). Research subjects have been wrong on many things, from New Coke (they gave it a thumbs up) to the Sony Walkman (they gave it a thumbs down). These days, study after study shows that people are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly product options. Real-world analysis of their behavior demonstrates that few put their money where their mouths are.

When they don't stop. "Expect More. Pay Less" is a terrific slogan. No doubt Target (TGT) means it, to a point. Target's customers—and all customers, for that matter—have their own best interests in mind (see When, Why, and How to Fire That Customer). As Adam Smith pointed out: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest." The same is true of the people who purchase the meat, the beer, and the bread. If you ask customers to design the perfect product, they'll rack up the features and ratchet down the price, then be thrilled to buy from you all the way through your "Going Out of Business" sale.

It's a safe bet that if you're not losing some customers because your prices are too high, your prices are too low (see Low Prices Are Not Always Your Friend). I know how hard it is to watch a customer walk out the door because they don't like how much you charge, but the price can only be right for them if it's right for you, too. Someone has to look out for the best interests of the business. No matter how much your customers love you, it ain't gonna be them.

That, in a nutshell, sums up why you should always take the voice of the customer with a grain of salt. Customers can offer valuable and insightful information, to be sure, but they ultimately work for themselves, not you. There's nothing cynical or antagonistic about that; it's simply the way the marketplace works. The more you know about their interests, the better you'll be able to act in your own interests, keeping the invisible hand working for us all.