Listening to what people have to say. Or not.

"Is it generally a good idea to listen to your customers?" Sounds like a silly question... after all the customer is the King.


I was thinking about this last night, after a discussion that I had with a client. Then, I saw this interesting post this morning, explaining how hard it is to listen to your customers and I couldn't help but agree (I have spent many years doing marketing research, including customer satisfaction surveys)

Nevertheless..., I also felt like challenging the premise that we always need to listen to our customers. (I am not suggesting that we shouldn't, but there is more to it, please bear with me for a minute)

Have you heard of Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid and their Most Wanted painting research?

Well here is what they did: they went out to to discover what a true "people's art" would look like, and they conducted a poll... The result was America's Most Wanted and America's Least Wanted paintings, which were exhibited in New York at the Alternative Museum under the title "People's Choice."

Since most people preferred outdoors scenes, it was a landscape. Since most people liked lakes or rivers or oceans, and another large percentage liked forests and fields, the painting included a wooded area and a grassy verge near a large body of water. The painting's predominant color was the one nearly everyone preferred -- blue sky and blue water. Since people liked wildlife in their paintings, two deer gamboled in the water. The answers were mixed as to whether there should be human figures in the painting, and whether those figures should be contemporary or historical, so the final work included small human figures dwarfed by the landscape: three children, and, standing off to the side, George Washington...

Most wanted painting:

So here is the question:
What would art look like if it were to please the greatest number of people? Or conversely: What kind of culture is produced by a society that lives and governs itself by opinion polls? Stagnant, boring and flat if you ask me.

Back to our discussion: I feel that the extent to which we need to listen to our customers (by that I mean how much, how often and in what way) is very much related to the business that we are in and to our objectives. If you have a functional product or service, then understanding problems and receiving feedback is critical. If, on the other hand, you are in the business of "sparkling magic", then its a different story. You need to stand out, challenge and innovate. You need to combine structure and creativity. Its like listening and asserting in a way, probably more asserting than listening in this case.

But then again you need to have something interesting to say.