Producing Results Blog

Why Listening To Your Customers Will Make You Fail

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It was during a focus group that I realized my customers were lying to me.

I was working at a TV station in Portland, Oregon, and we were developing a new, nightly game show. Part of that development involved focus groups.

Maybe you’ve participated in a focus group. In our case, the process went like this. Our focus group research company somehow found several groups of likely viewers, paid them twenty bucks or so to come to a meeting room, and then showed them clips of our pilot and asked them questions. What the viewers didn’t know is that we, the producers, were watching and listening to them from behind one-way glass (kind of like the interrogation rooms in every police show you’ve ever seen).

Now here’s the part that I didn’t expect.

Before the first focus group (I think we did three in all), the research company told us this: “Pay attention when they tell you what they don’t like. Ignore them when they tell you what they’d like instead.”

“Ignore them when they tell you what they’d like instead.”

This is because, by and large, your customers don’t know what they want until they see it.

Your customers don’t know what they want until they see it. Click To Tweet

They think they know what they want. But when you try to give it to them, they turn up their nose and say, “Oh, I don’t like this. This isn’t what I want at all.” To which you reply, “BUT IT’S WHAT YOU ASKED FOR!!!” And that may be. But it doesn’t matter, does it? You still lose.

Henry Ford is reported to have said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” [Note: although there’s no evidence that Ford ever actually said this, there is evidence that he felt this way.] That’s because they had no concept of an automobile until they saw one.

Your customers tend to base what they think they want on what they already have. They just want a better one.

Your customers tend to base what they think they want on what they already have. Click To Tweet

Steve Jobs said (really!), “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”

Here’s what I learned from those focus groups. It’s not the job of the customer to come up with a product or service that will delight then. It’s your job. You’re the producer. You can’t abdicate that job to them. If they tell you they don’t like something, pay attention. And then you—you—figure out what to offer. Something that will surprise them. Something that will captivate them. Something that will astound them.

Back in 1997, nobody was saying, “You know what I really want? A book about a boy wizard!”

And then, on June 26th, we saw one. We read it. And we couldn’t get enough.

J.K. Rowling is a producer. She didn’t gather a bunch of teens into a room with one-way glass and ask them what they wanted. What she did instead was offer them something they couldn’t have imagined. Something that surprised, captivated, and astounded them.

You’re a producer too. What are you going to offer?

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About the Author:

For 15 years, Executive Producer Bill Stainton, CSP led his team to more than 100 Emmy Awards and 10 straight years of #1 ratings. Today Bill helps leaders achieve those kinds of results--in THEIR world and with THEIR teams.
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