Don't Don't Listen To Your Customers

I was interviewed on a podcast recently and at one point one of the hosts, let's call him Steve, because that is his real name, said:

Never listen to your customers!

And I died inside a little. But I kept going... and tried to keep quiet about it, but I think I have to share some things on the topic...

This kind of sentiment, "Never listen to your customers", "People don't know what they want!", "People are really looking for a better version of themselves," are just the sort of things I would say, at times, in very specific contexts, but which can so easily be taken out of context, misunderstood and misremembered, so much so that I want to ban myself from ever saying anything like it again.

It all comes back to this famous saying:

"If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."
Allegedly but probably not Henry Ford

And when I think about it for even a moment I want to rage quit the internet and never come back.

Of course you should listen to your damn customers! What sort of sociopathic jerk would think that feedback from customers is devoid of meaning?

If customers say that they want a faster horse, and you are building something that will make them much faster, such as a car, then that's a great sign! Keep doing that! You've listened well!

If customers says they want a faster horse, and you immediately torch your car factory and start selectively breeding horses, then you're an idiot! It's not the customer's fault you're an idiot. You were an idiot already!

Rather than saying "Don't listen to customers" I wish the message was: "Listen to customers, but don't be an idiot about it" or better yet "Listen to customers and unpack what they say."

When they say they want a faster horse, you unpack it... work out which is the essential part: owning a fast horse, or getting somewhere quickly? Perhaps a fast horse is a status symbol, in which case selling them a car will do little to please them. But if what they really want is to get somewhere fast, then they might be happy to do so without the inconvenience of caring for a horse.

"Don't Listen To Your Customers: Observe Them!"

The advice "Don't Listen To Your Customers" is often suffixed with a phrase like: "Observe them!" because their behavior will often tell a different story to their words.

That's great -- observe your customer. But how on earth are you supposed to do that!?

There's two ways to observe the customer: the cheap way or the expensive way. For solo founders I recommend the cheap way.

The expensive way is to put out the product and then observe how it is used, either in usability labs, or through analytics. For extra sophistication you can add A/B testing into the mix... well all of that is hella expensive! You're paying the cost of development for bad features, you're adding the cost of instrumentation, ramping up the complexity of your product, adding in a dash of mathematics, and if you're paying for traffic as well, the price can be astronomical!

Cheap observations, on the other hand, are cheap. So start here:

Go where your customer goes. See what your customer says when you're not around. Look at their buying behaviour, look at what they consider relevant to their purchasing decisions. See what already works. See how they solve problems today. See what new problems that creates for them. Observe them from the inside, by becoming one of them. Live amongst the village of people you are studying. Join their forums. Engage in their customs. Be one of them.