How much should you listen to customers?


Over the last week there was a great discussion on the Lean Startup Circle forum with lots of insights around customer feedback and how much one should listen to it. It was pretty long with lots of back and forth so I thought I'd summarize it here for easy consumption and add some further thoughts.

If you want to read it verbatim you can find it here.

Credit to the folks that contributed, it's an amazing community.

The problem

It all started with this article on titled Mark Cuban on Why You Should Never Listen to Your Customers.

Of course that's the classic kind of controversial title that draws clicks, and I'd normally just ignore it if it wasn't that it's hurting the community by giving this false impression that you shouldn't listen to feedback from your customers.

Listening to customers, and in general driving the product development from their feedback, is also often a point of contention for creative entrepreneurs which will lament Lean Startup is killing their genius.

This couldn't be more far off from the truth, but it's an unfortunate myth about Lean which I'm hoping we will, one day, able to put to rest.

Predicting the future

People are bad at predicting the future. This means you, I, and your customers, nobody excluded.

It's out of the scope of this article to look at all the research done in the fields of psychology and sociology, but suffice to say there's plenty papers out there documenting our poor abilities to accurately predict how we'll feel or react to future situations.

One that I'll mention is the research on speed dating that was also popularized by the book Blink and can easily translate to most predictions people will make about consumer products.

The short of it is that participants to a number of speed dating events were asked before the event, right after the event, and a month after the event, who their ideal partner was. The data showed glaring incongruences among those stories pointing out that people would idealize the partner or justify in hindsight what their gut had chosen.

This last point is especially important and we'll get back to it later.

If you want to read more about the experiment you can take a look at this article.

Tell me where it hurts

So if we're so bad at predicting the future, how can you ask customers what product to build?

You can't. The good news is that you were never meant to.

This is in fact a main misconception about what customers interviews are about: you should never ever ask your customers to tell you what to build, that's your job.

So what good it is to talk to them?

Customers, which let's not forget are people like you and I, are very good at complaining, well all are. This makes them perfect to understand what's currently not working in their lives and what sorts of problems the have. The stronger the complaints and the venting, the stronger will probably be their interest in a solution.

But even this has pitfalls.

What about justification bias?

A general predisposition to complain can mislead you into thinking that someone actually cares about solving a given problem. This is why you should not stop to the pain, but actually dig into their current remedies.

This is one of the important traits of an early adopter (here's a guide on how to find yours): they are already doing something to solve the problem.

This also protects you from the justification bias I hinted to earlier when I was talking about the speed dating research. Because we tend to justify choices we've already made you might run into people that don't want to admit they have a problem because it'd imply they made poor decisions.

If you are aware of that however you can dig into their answers and find the incongruences. It takes time and skills, doing customer interviews properly is not just a matter of getting in front of someone and asking a bunch of questions.

Treat them as hypothesis

Still, even if you try to avoid future predictions you may still encounter customers who will tell you they want X. If that happens you shouldn't just throw that away because we said people are bad at predicting the future, but you shouldn't just trust it either.

Like anything else in Lean Startup land take them as hypothesis and go test them.

Open ended questions, the weapon of choice

One of the other important things that came up in the thread was the use of open ended questions during the discovery phase. If you are trying to asses if a customer has a problem you don't want to ask them "hey do you have problem X?".

That's unnatural, and while I'm sure right now you're thinking that's obvious, more often than not when I review interview scripts with entrepreneurs I mentor it happens all the time (and I've done similar things many times myself).

Instead you can use open ended questions like tell me about your experience doing this task or even broader what does a typical work day looks like for you?.

These questions offer enough space for the customers to choose whatever is closest to their hearts, either because they particularly like it or because it's particularly painful.

Open ended questions are also great to uncover bigger problems you didn't suspect that are related to the area you're investigating. This is often how pivots come about: you're prodding at something, which turns out negative, but during all the poking a patterns emerges that is stronger than the one you were looking for.

Creativity and inventing the future

Going back to the original article, I do feel like they abused Cuban's point to write something controversial, but to their credit, at the very end (which probably most people will never read) they gave the real insight:

Your customers can tell you the things that are broken and how they want to be made happy. Listen to them. Make them happy. But don't rely on them to create the future road map for your product or service. That's your job

And that's also the answer to those founders who don't want to adopt Lean because they feel it takes away their creativity.

You have to be creative to find the best solution and in fact, like Cuban also says, that creativity is your best weapon to fend off competition since everybody else is out there getting the same feedback and the difference is made by your ability to invent and execute on a solution.


Do yourself a favor and go do customers interviews, they'll save you a ton of time and be a great advantage, but realize that it takes times and skills that you should acquire if you don't have.

If you don't know how to code you wouldn't just open a text editor and pretend to write your webapp, so why are you doing that with custdev?

And if you need help with that I'd be more than happy to jump on call and do my best to figure it out together (or if there's enough interest/people we can run an online workshop, just let me know via email or twitter).

More importantly tho, own the solution and don't fall for the Lean Startup killing creativity myth.

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