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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.

Conclusion

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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