The paradox of customer input: When to listen and when to lead

In the world of business, the customer is often enshrined as the ultimate source of wisdom. Businesses go to great lengths to collect feedback, analyse behaviours, and map out customer journeys. It’s almost gospel: Listen to your customers, and success will follow. Yet there’s a wrinkle in this straightforward narrative. In some scenarios, seeking customer input could be a roadblock to the innovative leaps that can define a company. The question is, when should you listen to your customers, and when should you trust your instincts to break new ground?

The case against asking for early-stage input

It’s a sentiment that challenges conventional wisdom, but when you’re innovating—a genuinely new product or service—the customer might not be your best consultant. Henry Ford’s famous quip about faster horses succinctly captures this perspective. If Ford had relied on customer surveys, we might still be in a world dominated by horse-drawn carriages. Ford had the foresight to understand that people didn’t really want faster horses; they wanted a more efficient means of transportation. They just didn’t know it yet.

Apple’s late co-founder Steve Jobs mirrored this philosophy. Jobs was not one to conduct focus groups or solicit customer feedback when imagining the next disruptive technology. He had a flair for intuiting what people would want before it ever occurred to them. This is how we ended up with transformative devices like the iPhone, which revolutionised not just communication, but practically every facet of modern life.

The point isn’t that customers are short-sighted, but that they are experts in the world as it is, not as it could be. When trying to introduce a groundbreaking concept, asking for opinions will usually yield suggestions confined to the parameters of existing products or services.

The iterative approach: When customer input is gold

There’s a flip side to this coin. If you’re in the realm of iteration—tweaking or expanding upon a product or service that’s already in the public consciousness—then customer feedback is invaluable. Here, the consumer’s experience with existing products provides critical insights that can drive meaningful improvements.

Small business owners can leverage this type of input to great advantage. A bakery owner, for example, who wants to introduce a new type of pastry can benefit from understanding customer preferences about crust texture, sweetness level, or filling variety. In these situations, failure to consult the customer can result in a missed opportunity or, worse, a costly mistake.

Striking the right balance

So, how does one navigate this apparent dichotomy? The key lies in discerning the nature of your business objective. Are you iterating or innovating? Are you venturing into uncharted territory, or are you refining what’s already there? The answers to these questions can guide your strategy.

For small businesses with limited resources, the stakes are particularly high. Wrong moves can be costly, yet the right gamble can lead to outsized rewards. Thus, exercise judicious use of customer input. When iterating, employ methods like surveys, focus groups, and A/B testing to hone your offering. When innovating, seek input sparingly and consider it alongside other factors, such as technological trends and market dynamics.

Final thoughts

Customers are an indispensable asset, and their insights can shape a company’s trajectory in meaningful ways. Yet, as with any business tool, the utility of customer feedback has its limits. Innovators should heed Ford’s and Jobs’ examples: Sometimes the biggest leaps come from looking beyond what your audience says they want, to give them something they never knew they needed.

While it might be tempting to ask for feedback at every turn, especially in the formative stages of your business, remember that innovation often requires a leap of faith—one that only you can take.

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