Or, better yet, what they need.

There’s no denying it…customers are critical to your success. So if you’re not solving problems that they care about, then you will fail.

But you can go about figuring out how to solve those problems the wrong way.  Take the company Maglite for example.

It was in 1979 that Tony Maglica created and sold a hefty flashlight with a precise, bright beam that eventually became standard issue for all police officers.

What was Tony’s secret?

The product — a bright, reliable and tough flashlight — solved a very simple need. But Tony Maglica didn’t ask police officers their problems or what they wanted out of a new flashlight.

No, instead, he predicted the solution to the problem and gave it to them.

It was revolutionary and exactly what they wanted…but the odd thing is they wouldn’t have been able to tell Tony that the Maglite was what they wanted. Tony had to invent the future.

The danger of asking customers what they want

Mark Cuban tells a story about a consulting client who repeatedly asked customers what features they would like on the product. They thought this would help them build a product that fit their customers’ expectations.

Mark Cuban Photo: Wikipedia

That approach backfired.

What was happening was Mark’s client was basically copying what their competitor was doing. See, Mark’s client’s customers were looking at the competitor’s products and seeing things they wanted…so they went back and told Cuban’s client the features.

This locked his client into a cycle of losing competitive position. They were locked in the past because they made changes that only amounted to keeping up with their competitors, instead of creating truly innovative features and products.

That is what will happen if you listen to customers. Here’s how to avoid that.

4 questions to ask your self

But how do you create a product that invents the future and also solves an obvious but meaningful need without ending up with something like the Segway…a product with a lot of hype but no market?

You need to ask yourself these four questions:

  • Is it obvious? When Tony Maglica handed his flashlights to police officers, they immediately knew what problem was being solved. It was obvious that the tight and bright beam of light the flashlight produced would allow them to see in dark corners better than they ever had. And the heavy-duty size of the flashlight meant that it would work when the officers needed it to work, no matter how much damage it suffered.
  • Is it simple? First and foremost, a revolutionary product is simple. For example, you do not need to understand a thing about search algorithms to understand what Google allowed you to do: find relevant content. You got it immediately. But Google didn’t ask customers what they wanted. They just knew they wanted to build a better search engine. They invented the future.
  • Is it interesting? A revolutionary product breaks the commodity mold. When it comes to social networks, for instance, there are hundreds of them, each trying to fulfill a single niche. The winners are the ones that make networking on social sites interesting. MySpace, for example, allowed you to personalize the experience. Twitter came along and challenged you to blog in 140 characters or less. Facebook stripped down the experience so it was clean and simple, and then added apps, like games, to make it interesting. With 53 percent of users having played games on Facebook and another 19% “addicted” I’d say their strategy worked.
  • Is it meaningful? Of course if you create a product that solves a problem, it better be a meaningful solution.  Square is a product that allows small businesses to collect payments via credit cards on an iPhone or iPad. The reason this is meaningful is that these businesses were losing money by not having a convenient way to collect payments. Wouldn’t you agree that’s a pretty meaningful solution?

How to offer something utterly unique

Smart phone designers talk about their products falling into a black rectangle trap, which is just another way of saying all smart phones basically look alike.

Nothing will kill a product quicker than to look like a commodity. But ask a customer and they are likely to tell you what they want…but the final product will end up looking like a commodity.

In order to avoid this trap, here are a few things you must think about:

  • Your industry – Whatever industry you work in you better be a master of that industry. You better know every product available to customers, the pros and cons of each product and where the industry is headed.
  • Your audience – Just because I’m saying that asking customers is not the right approach when it comes to revolutionary innovation doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know them inside and out. You have to understand their needs so you can think about how to solve those problems with a revolutionary idea.
  • Your competition – You need to know what your competition is doing, where they are headed and why. In the end, you’re looking for ways that the competition can hurt you…and then trying to create a product that can destroy anything you’ve done up until that time. If you’re going to get your butt kicked by a superior product, wouldn’t you much rather have that product be yours than your competition?

Only when you know your industry, audience and competition cold will you be able to create the product of the future.

How to listen to customers the Apple Way

In the end, it’s important that you get feedback from your customers. But you don’t do this in the early stages of innovation.

Why? The only things that customers know to ask for are better, faster and cheaper. That is really nothing more than a 10 or 15 percent improvement on the same old thing…which is bound to lock you in the past.

Your job is to create something that breaks with the past and invents the future, changing how we live and do things.

Apple, for example, listens to its customers daily and responds rapidly when it comes to the operation of their Apple stores.

The results are they have the highest ranking productivity for any retail store. Where most electronic stores make an average of $1,200 per square foot, Apple makes $6,000.

But keep in mind…Apple didn’t consult customers for the original idea…that was the work of Steve Jobs, Apple board member Millard Drexler and former Target VP Ron Johnson.

It took these visionaries experience and knowledge to predict what customers would truly love.


Customers can give you great feedback on how to make a current product even better. So you need to listen and respond to their suggestions once you’ve brought the product to market.

But until the product is to the market, if you want to build a product that defines the future and creates an entirely new market, then you need to ignore the customer and think big. Really big.

Do you think it’s a good idea to listen to customers when you are creating a product?

Neil Patel is the co-founder of KISSmetrics, an analytics provider that helps companies make better business decisions.

More from Neil Patel on GeekWireSeven signs that you might just be an entrepreneur Eleven things every entrepreneur should know about innovation… 17 things I wish I’d known when starting my first business

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  • Guest

    For a great example of innovative design, look no further than your favourite game console, iPhone. iPhone has a sleek, small design, a powerful processor, a great screen, and a loyal community of game developers who are being paid well. All of this came from Apple telling us what we wanted, not from us telling Apple a thing.

    Now look at the flipside, the Pandora game console. You can find it at http://www.open-pandora.org/ . This is an “open” project, started by a mostly-European group of gamers who told each other what they wanted in a game console. They wanted buttons. They wanted analog sticks. They wanted a keyboard. They wanted a touch screen. They wanted a stylus. They wanted one memory card slot — no, make that two slots. They wanted Linux. The result: a perennially-delayed monstrosity costing nearly $400 and with no content beyond emulators of others’ game systems.

    When a company tells customers what they want, and they do so accurately, they realize huge gains. When customers tell a company what they want, they ask for only that which they know, and as such they will never see innovation.

  • Guest

    Spot-on – great article, your examples are perfect.

  • http://twitter.com/ken_glass Ken Glass

    Check out this brand new interview with a Wharton professor about being customer centric: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=eicCJ6jJxmI 

  • http://twitter.com/ken_glass Ken Glass

    Check out this brand new interview with a Wharton professor about being customer centric: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=eicCJ6jJxmI 

  • Rob Hammond

    I’ve always thought that beta testing had more to do with go-to-market strategy than product planning.

  • http://twitter.com/kadeeirene kadeeirene

    Good post – there’s definitely a balance to find between supporting your customers’ needs and keeping an eye on your own vision and product. If you’re not careful, someone who doesn’t know your goals can build your product for you which won’t turn out for the best. 

  • http://twitter.com/alwaysbshipping Tom Leung

    Agree largely with the gist of the article.  I do think there is a risk in PM’s going too far in the other direction and just making stuff up based on intuitive assumptions that don’t bear out.  I recently wrote a bit more about this if anyone is curious.  http://bit.ly/facm3O 

  • Ed

    Read “The Innovator’s Dilemma” – a terrific book that made these points in 1997.

  • http://www.puzzazz.com Roy Leban

    Great post, but the headline is wrong. It should be “Why it’s not ALMOST NEVER a good idea to give customers what they ASK FOR”.

    Neil makes this crystal clear in the post: “[The Maglite] was revolutionary and exactly what they wanted….”

    It is not true that we shouldn’t give customers what they want, but we have to do this knowing that customers are generally incapable of telling us what they want. Generally, people are only able to describe things in terms of what they have seen, either from you or your competitors. They can’t predict the future — that’s your job. You get a big bost over your competitors if you can figure out what they really want based on what they’ve said. This is exactly what Maglite did and what companies like Apple do over and over again.There is one caveat, and it particularly applies to small companies. It can be hard for people to understand why you’re giving them something different than they asked for. For example, my company is the first company to produce puzzle ebooks instead of puzzle games. I can extol the reasons and the advantages at length (I’ll save that for somewhere else), but there is always an uphill battle in helping people understand why you didn’t give them what they asked for. When an established company does the equivalent, there are many people helping the products over that initial hump. You don’t have that assistance at a startup.So, absolutely, give customers what they want — just don’t take their word for it!

  • http://www.kickofflabs.com/ Josh Ledgard

    I do believe that customers have difficulty explaining what they want. It’s also true that they typically just as for what competitors offer.  But I worry about all the entrepreneurs I see reading advice like this and hearing “Say no to customers”.  When it’s not about that at all. 

    You have to say yes to customers all the time.  You have to ask “why” they need that feature.  You have to ask them about their goals.  You can get to the root problem they are trying to solve if you just spend a bit MORE time asking customers.  

    The problem with not doing this is that everyone starts to think they are Steve Jobs.  They aren’t.  Real people have to listen to customers. You don’t have to do exactly what they ask for… but you have to understand why they are asking for it.  

  • http://urdubooksfreedownload.blogspot.com/ urdu books pdf free download

    i think every businessman should try to create innovative thing instead of spending a lot time to compete his competitor. I a young student and learning about new technology and more then this improving my English :D. I don’t know but i think starting of business is very difficult, but to manage a running business is more difficult. Its my thinking..

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