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Customer Requests: Are They Overrated in Product Decisions?

Cygnet Infotech

“Customer requests/ feedback is great for telling you what you did wrong. It's terrible at telling you what you should do next.” —Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote

As product managers we’re often caught in a catch-22 situation.  We often wonder whether internal innovation should take a backseat to business/ retail customer requests to drive product decisions. Customer satisfaction is indeed of paramount importance and understanding customer wants and pains is a pivotal part of building a better product but it’s not the gospel truth. And which customers do you need to be listening to anyways? Should you really build the most important feature?

Co-creation may seem the fastest and most efficient way to meet customer demands and identify more opportunities for growth. However, without an understanding of:

  • Who are the business/ retail customers giving you feedback?
  • Their understanding of your business and business strategy

Then you’re probably aiming in the dark. Moreover, if their requests don’t align with your product strategy and vision then listening to customer requests may not even move a needle as much as they should.

Dangers to Listening to Customer Requests:

Business are always faced with a complex web of dynamics and interactions across its micro and macro ecosystem. As product managers, we must consider these various business factors beyond the product itself to drive optimal business decisions and not ignore them in our quest to meet customer requests. Below are some dangers that are consequences of listening to customers to closely.

Tendency to make incremental Growth instead of innovative growth:

Companies that rely heavily on customer requests to drive product decisions, more often develop a tendency to make incremental growth rather that bold, breakthrough improvements. For instance, with the rise in cloud computing, IBM, which initially followed traditional waterfall method for its enterprise software, switched to agile development and later to the highly automated method of CD (continuous delivery) to respond quickly to new or changing customer needs incrementally.

Your product will Likely Become a “Me-Too Product”:

Customers have a very limited frame of reference and thus merely ask for missing features that other manufacturers already deliver. Thus, in your attempt to meeting customer demands completely, you’re likely to turn your product into a me-too product. Google Lively that was introduced to compete with ‘Second Life” or “Facebook Home” that tried to become the home-screen of your phone are some instances where response to customer request resulted in me-too products.

Limited Appeal Due to Lead Users Dominating Product Roadmap

With product being guided by recommendations from the narrow group of customers called ‘Lead Users’ (customers with advanced product understanding and expert in its use) it is likely that the products will have a limited appeal because they are not average users and thus there may be a market disconnect.

Pay premium for upgrade to New and Improved Features

Even as the organization begins to excel at listening to customers and delivering on their wishes, it may realize that customers don’t want the ‘new and improved features for which they’re forced to pay.

Yet there’s no arguing that in the fast paced and complex industry, collecting and understanding customer requests from your business and retail customer base is very valuable. However, to fully leverage the potential of customer requests, we must ensure that there is a two-way communication process, a proper channel with a clear ownership of the data and process to reap the rewards. 

Customer Requests Are Like Sherpas

Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” It still holds true today. For innovative organizations, the challenge is to unlock the less ordinary to create something new. Whereas if left to customers, they are likely to interpret and give meaning to what they experience based on hindsight rather than foresight. In-fact the best inventions often meet an unmet need and are rarely articulated by customers.

Steve Jobs at Apple was probably the most customer-focused CEO who studied focus groups (real-world source of customer feedback at how other products fail) and then carried it forward it forward from there. Think of mighty successful iPad or iPod by Apple as a classic example. Just like the iPhone, they weren’t products that were identified by customers as something they might need or must have in daily life.

Customers should not be trusted to come up with solutions, they aren’t expert or informed enough for the level of innovation process. They only know what they’ve experienced and cannot imagine what they don’t’ know about emergent technologies, new materials. Understanding of what customers value and truly want is far more resource intensive exercise rather than merely responding to their customer requests.

Relying blindly on customer requests or feedback undermines the innovation process and growth but an organization needs to go further if they really want to grow.  Thus, customer request must be a medium to identify the problems and in many instances even help establish priorities.

A research study ‘The Effectiveness of Customer Participation in New Product Development: A Meta-Analysis’ highlights that despite the value of customer input, customer participation may not be imperative for every firm in the industry. The report also points out that customer participation in NPD (New Product Development) is significantly related to three different types of performance – new product innovativeness, speed to market, and new product financial performance. The report suggests that customer participation in early and late stages of development is most beneficial.

Customer requests and feedback are critical because no company can risk its product development that no one wants to buy. However solely relying on customer requests to drive product decisions is unlikely to drive breakthrough innovation or significant growth. The question you must ask is whether the impact on your business of not meeting your customer asks is as important as the impact of meeting your customer asks in driving product decisions. The answer will help you drive your product decisions.

As with all data, it’s not just what you have, but what you do with it therefore it becomes a mandate to choose the right technology partner who can hand-hold you to make the right decisions to drive product decisions. At Cygnet, our experts are ever ready to work with you to build great products. Write to us at inquiry@cygnetinfotech.com

Cygnet Infotech

Cygnet Infotech is a CMMi level 3 and is ISO 27001:2013 and ISO 9001:2008 certified, 18 year old global technology provider enabling ISVs & enterprises through emerging technology, software engineering, technology consulting, SAP Implementation, advisory & maintenance services. It’s proven 18-year track record boasts of successfully delivered 1400+ valuable software solutions to its diverse clientele across the globe using a global delivery model.

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