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.

Yahoo! gets personal

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. ;)

Virginia Nussey is the director of content marketing at MobileMonkey. Prior to joining this startup in 2018, Virginia was the operations and content manager at Bruce Clay Inc., having joined the company in 2008 as a writer and blogger.

See Virginia's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (14)
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14 Replies to “What If the Customer’s Wrong?”

Wouldn’t a customer eventually want every thing for free? If I had Control over a product I think I would want it for Free. But, I guess Yahoo is FREE…. It’s not really a product, or at least on that id for sale.

I’m surprised to learn that Steve Jobs doesn’t do market research! I also think that giving the customer what they want is a good thing, although customers aren’t experts and don’t always know best, but I think they should be consulted when developing new products.

I think it’s important to make a distinction here – there is the mindset of the customer is always right, and the mindset of putting the customer first. The later often gets grouped into the first, but these are different responses. When your child is always right, you give them candy all the time. When you put your child first, you give them vegetables, and maybe occasionally candy.

The customer is always right is also misused in that it often refers to a single customer, or a group of people who are not part of the target demographic. The misused term would say if a single customer wants pink walls, give them pink walls – even if the next ten customers leave because of it. The more correct approach to the customer is always right would be: the customer, who through research and experience is known as xyz demographic, generally likes xyz products therefore we will offer xyz products. In that sense, the customer is always right – but not everybody is a customer.

Bottom line: if you must stick to a cliche, remember that you can’t please everyone all the time :)

@chris — Spot on.

I always have difficulty in this area as I’m training new staff. There’s a fine line between “the customer is always right” and “the customer is paying you to be right on their behalf”.

You’re consulting, act like a consultant. But, as you say, you better know what’s right for the client before you open your opinion to the world!

Interesting article, a different approach to customer needs. I also enjoyed reading the article ‘ the customer is wrong'(link).

I’ve got a problem with the hat example – not because I’m a neo-Nazi, but because I’m a strong advocate of free speech. Is wearing a hat, however offensive, “intefering with the duties of a crew member” ? “Causing other passengers and the crew discomfort” is way too vague for my tastes. What if it was a yarmulke instead of a neo-nazi-embellished hat? or a turban? Catering to the least common denominator is always a lose – people need to grow thicker skin, IMHO.

Great post again Virginia.

On the tattoo debate – I’ve got a friend with his own name on his arm. If he adds a status update, I’m going to start drinking on my own.

Virginia Nussey

LOL :) You’re funny.

another fine article..

p.s. who in their right mind would get a yahoo IM tattoo?

Virginia Nussey

Totally. But here’s predicting Facebook tattoos are the next tramp stamp. :P

If I ever got a Facebook Tattoo, my friends would have beaten me up. And they should. Another eye-opening article from Ms.Nussey.

Virginia Nussey

Ooo! Let’s all make super geeky temporary tattoos! Or maybe I will and hand them out at the next conference or event. :D http://www.microsoft.com/canada/home/memories-and-crafts/articles/design-your-own-temporary-tattoos.aspx

If I was gonna do something crazy like get a social media icon… it would have to be Myspace. That way I wouldn’t have to wait as long before it went from outdated to retro-cool ;)


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