Complaints, feedback, suggestions, ideas—customers communicate a lot of things to you. All you need to do is listen. But what exactly does it mean to listen to your customers, and, what happens when you don’t? Thankfully, many businesses have come this way before and learned lessons so you don’t have to.

Listen to validate

Remove assumption bias.

Ideas are sticky. They make you choose your ego over established logic, because you tend to believe that yours are the best. In business, although there are examples of teams going against the grain, the number of ego-backed failures is far higher than the successes.

Consider this case study:

In 1955, Ford Motors was working hard to launch its new automobile, the Ford Edsel. This car was targeted towards middle-class Americans. Ford conducted a slew of polls to try to determine exactly what the people of America wanted and invested $400 million into the car, which was then introduced in 1957.

Everything seemed to be going well until they hit a wall: Americans literally weren’t buying it because they wanted “smaller, more economical vehicles.” This came as a surprise—it flopped despite the fact that it was designed from the opinions they got through all those polls. Right?

John Brooks, author of ‘Business Adventures’ writes, “As for the design, it was arrived at without even a pretense of consulting the polls, and by the method that has been standard for years in the designing of automobiles—that of simply pooling the hunches of sundry company committees.” Ford president, Robert McNamara, finally pulled the plug in 1960, thereby stopping production of the Edsel. Today, the Ford Edsel is considered one of the biggest product failures, an expensive mistake that could’ve been avoided had they just listened to their customers.

Ideas need to start small and require validation at each step of the way. Customer feedback is a reasonably accurate validation of your idea. You might feel incredibly passionate about what you’re building, but customer behavior and feedback will be the truest test. 

Listen to improve

Foster continuous improvement.

In 2014, the Union Street Guest House, USA announced that they would charge customers $500 for leaving bad reviews online. Not only were they trying not to listen to their customers, they intended to punish them for speaking out. Quite obviously, their mistake backfired.

When news got out that customers were being fined for bad reviews, internet pranksters did what they did best. Humorous “guest reviews” of the guest house began to appear on Yelp. More than 500 reviews appeared in one day, sending the guest house’s average rating down.

Saying you don’t want to listen will never lead to progress. If your company just sits year after year with no intentions of improving, you’ll go out of business. At best, you’ll remain stagnant and go down slowly.

On the other hand, listening to customers and paying close attention to their feedback helps you grow. Feedback leads to improvement; employees and customers alike benefit from it. Your employees will feel more purposeful in their work, while your customers will feel valued.

 Listen to innovate

Enable proactive customer involvement.

Coffee giant Starbucks uses the art of listening to foster a worldwide community of patrons. Customers are encouraged to voice their ideas, and the viable ones are frequently implemented. Popular Starbucks fare such as Cake pops, K cups, and even sugar-free syrups are all ideas pitched by customers. Crowdsourcing ideas through a forum also lets a company brainstorm with a trusted group of patrons instead of good old-fashioned trial and error.

Your customers may not know as much about your product as you do, but customers are the ones actually using your service or product; they know what they want from you and what they don’t. Their feedback and opinions can provide the inspiration for your next big feature, and help you weed out the drawbacks in your product.

As Malcolm Forbes said, “The art of conversation lies in listening.” There is no field where these ring truer than customer service. Here, listening is not merely a part of making conversation; it is the key to turning your time, effort, and resources into fruitful customer experiences.


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