Are customers always right?

Market research is often used to find out what customers want. Two questions arise when applying this to the complex area of new product development in particular:

1. How can customers perceive something they have not experienced?

We are just not wired up that way. As Henry Ford (apparently) famously observed; if he had asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses’.

Think about any of our modern gadgets and the same thing applies: You just didn’t know you wanted it until it was put in front of you.

An additional problem is that when we do perceive the novel new product that we are asked about, we all perceive it in different ways based on myriad sets of different experiences.

There are a number of things that just can’t be measured in advance, such as the social status of the new product that arises from innovation and the fleeting cultural or fashion trends that they may be associated with.

(NB ‘invention’ would be a better descriptor than ‘innovation’ in many cases, but I will go with convention on this occasion).

2. What do we do with this information anyway?

The customer cannot and should not be expected to develop strategy. Answers to good and valid questions need to be properly interpreted with reference to business objectives.

It is the innovator who has to decide which customers to ask, what potential innovations to ask them about and what questions to ask in what ways. The simple advice here is that all of these things are far too important to be done without professional advice. DIY research could render the whole thing meaningless and the decisions made on the back of them catastrophic.

The problem with the ‘faster horses’ argument is that it only works whilst there is zero competition and the market is immature. The ‘innovator’ customer group takes it up precisely because of its novelty. As soon as you get to the kind of customer numbers whereby there is a return to be made, you then have to be very wary of both changing tastes (within a market that is now becoming established) and the competitive environment.

So – innovate away by all means, but future proof your business by well-timed and well-planned research as and when required.

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