What If the Customer’s Wrong?
I went to sign in to my personal e-mail this morning and what did I find but a lovely tattooed lady, the portrait of independence and personal style. In this vivid imagery, Yahoo! is telling me they’re where it’s at for a customized experience of the Web in all its social, informational and visually engaging glory.
Because isn’t that what users want? A platform that fits the way they use the Web? It’s the goal of a business to fill a consumer’s need, and it’s the marketer’s job to define that need and explain why said business is the right solution.
Technology companies have been leading the pack, even getting the credit for lifting the country’s struggling stock market, because they offer new, cutting-edge solutions, often times to needs consumers never even had before the Information Age changed the game forever.
But I can’t help but wonder. Have businesses shifted their service strategies too far into the realm of pandering to be truly productive. After all, what if the customer is wrong?
Admission: It’s a bit of a stretch to go from Yahoo!’s perfectly reasonable offering of a personalized home page to a larger criticism of companies that let their customers call the shots. But you follow me, right?
Okay, fair enough. Here’s a better example. Would you ever let your life be dictated by the Twitter mob? One guy’s doing it as an experiment dreamed up by his advertising firm. On Monday, David Perez will be at Twitter’s disposal for a week-long exercise in black-belt-degree submission. Just send a Twitter message to @davidondemand and he’ll do what you tell him to (within the law, of course). Supposedly, this isn’t just another scheme to get attention. Rather, it’s meant to demonstrate how advertising is becoming more personal thanks to technology.
So I’m supposed to view @davidondemand as some kind of progressive art installation? What exactly are we supposed to understand from this marketing mess? That the ad agency responsible will bend over backwards based on a customer’s whims? It may seem like the customer wins in that situation, but if suddenly that same theory became a trendy new school of parenting, there’d by thousands of angry, spoiled, fat toddlers running around demanding you hand over another puppy-cupcake duo.
Turns out, people are pretty awful at predicting what makes them happy. Furthermore, the more options you offer to meet any individual consumer’s desires, the unhappier that individual becomes. And of course, by letting the consumer dictate the offering, a business has no room for innovation. A business shouldn’t spend all day chasing the whims of customers who aren’t the experts in your field, who can’t visualize the full trajectory of the industry and who would be doing what you do if they did know it all.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s certainly a place for identifying business opportunities as they pop up. And this strategy can result in wins all around. The Hide Google Options plugin we developed recently was a fast response to a brand new problem and it quickly became one of the most popular ways to turn off Google’s three-column user interface and a link magnet that got us visibility and pats on the back from a relevant audience.
On the other hand, look at Google’s response to the user interface backlash. They’re not budging. They expect that users will adjust and are sticking to their guns. If I were a betting woman, I’d take one look at Google’s track record of success and side with them on this one. Sorry, Susan. [I freely admit that I just don't like change. —Susan]
For the final word, I’ll turn to another formidable force in the tech world: Apple. It’s fairly well known that Steve Jobs doesn’t do market research. And yet his company continues to set the bar for whoda-thunk tech devices that quickly become any American’s fifth limb. Rather than asking people what they want, they ask themselves what a great product would be and then strike out toward that goal.
Have you ever had an experience where trying to make a customer happy ended up backfiring? Have you ever found success by ignoring what a customer requested? Or do you think I’ve gone off the deep end completely? Share your thoughts in the comments. I promise to listen — even if we don’t agree.