Does the Customer Always Know Best?

In business, there are generally two agreed on models for developing products and services for customers. The first was followed staunchly by the late Steve Jobs. Jobs believed firmly that customers don’t know what they want, and one of the duties of a business is to discover the needs of the customer, with or without their help. Jobs opted to discover those needs without their help. While Steve was successful, others have not been. Essentially you are taking a very expensive gamble on what the customer wants. If the product offering is wrong, a lot of money has been spent on something nobody wants to buy.

Another school of thought is that the customer knows best. By communicating with the customer and working closely with them, a business can discover the best set of features and options for customers, ultimately creating the best value possible. This is the philosophy taught by Steve Blank. But it too has it’s flaws. In this article, Blank details a story where a student of his did everything the customer wanted. The product saw an incredible amount of initial buy in, but slowly customers stopped visiting the website. The freemium to paid-upgrade model wasn’t working. What the two figured out is the customers his student spent so much time working never wanted that kind of payment model.

I believe the best path toward creating a successful startup lies somewhere in the middle of these two stories. I’m a huge believer in Steve Blank and working with the customer to build a product that works best for everyone. However, there are times, especially when it comes to price, where customer wants are not compatible with a successful business model. That’s the whole point of Blank’s tactics: creating a successful, scalable business model.

While giving the customers what they want is a wonderful thing, keeping the business model in mind, and therefore the business is the most important thing. If something doesn’t fit in the model, the business as a whole will fail and the product or service you are providing that the customer can’t live without will never have a permanent place in the market. Sometimes the model dictates what’s best for the customer and the business. What’s important is recognizing when the customer’s needs occasionally come second.

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