23 December 2009

A Side Order of Spaghetti: Why Listening to Customers is Nothing New — or Even Necessary

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango and Italian Cuisine Junkie

And there are some customers you should always listen to.

The way social media-philes talk, you’d think that businesses had been ignoring customers for thousands of years. The socmeds ascend their virtual mounts and issue pronouncements like “2010 will be the year of listening to the customers needs” and “customer service is the new marketing.”

Nice sentiments — but hardly new, and not exactly the perfect business strategy, either…

Ye Olde Customer 1.0

You know the expression “the customer is always right”? The first variation can be traced back over a century to 1908, when legendary hotelier César Ritz advertised “Le client n’a jamais tort” (“The customer is never wrong”). Then came the great wave of department stores of the early 20th century. Department store founders Harry Gordon Selfridge and Marshall Field are both credited with giving Ritz’s expression its now positive English spin. John Wanamaker later used “the customer is always right” to promote his Philly stores.

Advertising slogans aside, how about methodically incorporating customers into formulating business strategy? That’s got to be relatively new, right? Only if you consider the 1950s recent. Peter Drucker wrote about the value of putting customers front and center in his book “The Practice of Management,” and about the same time, John B. McKitterick put it into practice at General Electric.

Indeed, I would argue that listening to customers intently dates back to the first nervous innkeeper taking drink orders from some heavily armed Xia Dynasty warriors. Over the ensuing 4000 years, waiters everywhere have had to endure the whims and whines of customers. The 1996 film “Big Night” (one of my all time favorites) brilliantly depicts one such scene in an Italian restaurant:

Now this scene also depicts what’s wrong with listening to customers: they’re not always right. In fact, as I’ve written in previous posts, customers can be infuriatingly out of their minds. Ask any veteran chef, painter, architect, filmmaker, writer, engineer or even doctor about listening to customers, and you’ll likely get an earful of rants about having to take orders from tasteless sacrilegious heathens. It’s the classic conflict between art and commerce made personal and amplified by a thousand new social mediums.

What’s more, customers don’t always say (or even know) what they really want. For example, they might say that they want great customer service, but then they’ll leave their friendly neighborhood mom-and-pop shop hanging high-and-dry in order to save a few bucks at Walmart.

Now I’m not saying that the customer is always wrong, either. I dig The Consumerist, and my two regular readers know that I frequently level potshots at companies who arrogantly commit crimes against humanity with their products (yeah, I’m talking about you, Microsoft… *$%#!ing Vista).

So what’s the solution?

Balance. Yes, listen to your customers and learn about their needs and issues. Then, when you’re done, turn to your experts — no, not the guy who splits his time between Twitter and Wikipedia: I’m talking the true experts with the top-shelf education and professional experience in the subject and industry. They might have some killer insights — after all, that’s why you’re paying them the sweet salaries with full dental coverage.

But don’t just stop there.

What is your competition doing? Watch their every move, as well. After all, if you and your competitors are both researching and listening to the same customers, there’s a chance you’ll produce an identical product, and if that happens, you could wind up in a devastating price war. Finally, don’t forget to train an ear on the members of your community: what you think is the perfect product might not sit well with a local politician, journalist or interest group.

In other words, customers are just one voice in the cacophony — it’s up to you, the manager, to listen to them all, to separate the worthwhile signal from the noise, and to strike the right balance between them. Yes, you might fail to find that balance, but that’s why you get paid the even sweeter salary with the stock options and executive retreats in Aruba.

Listening to customers is nothing new, nor is it any guarantee of success. Thanks to all the pseudo-experts online, it just happens to be il speciale del giorno. Nice suggestion — but keep reading the menu.


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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

2 Responses

  1. Listening to your ecosystem is such a universal truth! You listen translates to high probability to succeed and prosper, otherwise you almost always get in trouble.

  2. True enough, Freddy; there’s nothing new here except the amount of lip service the topic is getting and the way it’s being addressed.

    Note, by the way, that following your brand (and so the comments of your unhappier customers) on the social net doesn’t mean you’re doing customer service any better. In fact, it doesn’t mean you’re doing it at all. What it does mean is that you’re using a self-selecting sample of the cases you feel like paying attention to, to draw attention to the fact that you’re doing it. Hogwash.

    Real service is a culture. Like most things in business it waxes and wanes, usually according to what phase of the “bean counters are in charge” cycle you’re in.

    The potential for creating change through grassroots action is where the real difference social media makes crops up. Just like what you do here.

    Jeff Yablon

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