Does The Customer Know?

As a trained marketer, my default position is - we must start with the customer! I have taken this as an article of faith, a common sense position that underlie all businesses, that businesses exist to solve the problems of the customers. That lasted till I started putting it into practice. The customers I met either did not care to talk to me or wanted me to give a solution. The entrepreneurs I met told me that the customers do not know what they want (quoting Steve Jobs, I figured out). And, the marketers, I realised, were all telling me that it is about telling the customer they are getting what they want, while giving them what we want to give them.

I know this is cynical, but this is exactly what it feels like. True, we get to hear about companies which love their customers. But, once you have been inside the marketing box, it is hard to know what is for real. And, besides, even if some companies do and we get to hear about them, we get to hear about them simply as they are man-bites-dog exceptions, not the other way around. And, this makes sense in the world of business full of super-smart entrepreneurs and gullible customers, all those people who seek to construct their identities around the brands they could buy. 

Having worked in established companies and in start-ups, I am trying to come up with my own answers. My answer is that the customer knows more than she can tell. While I sympathise with the entrepreneurs who says that the customer does not seem to know, I think the point is that we often do not know how to ask. For the marketer who believes that he can just make the customers want things he has, I think he is grossly mistaken - and he is embarking on a path which will end up in failed companies, disenchanted customers and unemployed marketers (or, more unemployed marketers, I should say). And, for the customer who do not care or want me to come up with solution, I am willing to try harder.

Even if this is stating the obvious, I think market research is bunk. Going and asking a few questions about what the customer may like is a costly way to find out what we want to hear. Look at all the different ways of doing the market research, and to an outsider, it would look like the blind groping through the dark, providing approximate answers to imperfect questions and hoping something would click, a voodoo positing as science. The amazing fact that we keep doing it is more due to our faith in things written in textbooks than our common sense. Besides, it may work in some contexts where the product exists and parameters about its usage is largely known, but most entrepreneurs are not in that kind of place.

Even if the customer explicitly knew what she needed, figuring that out is a design exercise, rather than a logical, statistical thing. The only way to figure out how the customer would behave, what she would want is actually to be doing the real thing. It is indeed risky to be betting it all on something that may turn out to be the wrong thing, but that is indeed the point - who said there was a short-cut to business success? And, for technology businesses in particular, it is about figuring out how the technology-in-use would play out, and no statistical exercise can give that answer. Hence, we are now talking about Lean Start-ups and Business Model Canvass, the attempts at figuring out by failing.

The customer knows, even if she can not tell. Make her part of the process, help her serve herself - the point of co-creation - and you would know the answer. This is the in-between place between asking customers what they want and assuming that they need to be told what they should want, a crazily approximate position where failing is the norm and learning is the mantra that is indeed the holy grail of marketing. It is the tacit knowledge of the customer we are after, and letting them play is the best thing we could do. 


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