Listening to Your Startup Customers is Dangerous

Customers are wonderful, particularly if they pay for your products. But listening them can be dangerous.

Dangerous? Huh?

Sure, they provide valuable feedback, advice and criticism but the stuff customers tell you can be distracting, unfocused, self-serving and a waste of time.

The problem is the disconnect between what your product and what customers want. You make a product that has particular benefits and features; customers use the product to meet a need or solve a problem…but they usually want it to do even more.

In fact, the biggest challenge is customers are never truly satisfied or completely happy. No matter how good the product, pricing or customer service, customers believe it would be even better if it did something better or differently.

It means that when they tell you about your product, they want to talk about the existing product but, as important, they love to talk about what they would like to see.

The challenge for startups is knowing when to nod politely, while being able to ignore what they say. In many cases, their enthusiasm and interest is appreciated but it offers no value because it’s not aligned with your vision or road map.

Startups get themselves in trouble when they listen to what a customer tells them, and then reload on product development because the suggestions seem relatively minor, and it’s a way to make a customer happy.

The problem is trying to make your customers happy to a losing proposition. You can’t please everyone, and you can’t meet the needs of all your customers, otherwise you’ll end up with pig of a product that is bloated with features.

At the end of the day, happiness comes from making a product with a specific vision and mission. It doesn’t have to be all things to all people. But it will be successful if it meets the needs of different customers in different ways to provide value and utility.

So how should startups handle what customers say?

The best approach is active, enthusiastic and engaged listening. Truth be told, customers like to tell you what they think. It makes them feel better about using your product because there is engagement.

All the feedback, however, should go into a big pot where it should it should sit for a while before seeing the light of day. At some point, the pot should be sifted through to see if there is any value. Most of it will be useful but some of it will jump out because it fits with how the product should or could evolve.

This can be a difficult process because too much feedback can be overwhelming. In time, however, startups can develop finely tuned tools that make it easier to identify the “safe” information, while ignoring the dangerous or useful stuff.

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  • Stéphane

    It takes balls or money to say no to a client, especially to the first ones. As a startup, it’s hard to say no to revenue even though it’s not exactly our core business. Doing service is a good way to fund a company especially if the project is related to our product. Of course, if it’s not then it’s mostly a waste of time because at the end you have some cash but still are at the same point as before the project.

    With some practice we are getting good at educating the clients to how to use our tool for their needs instead of adapting our tool. I like to remember this Henri Ford quote: « If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. » :)

    • Mark Evans

      I really like your point about educating clients about how to use the tools rather than bending to their requests. One of the big mistakes startups make is they don’t do enough handholding to ensure their customer understand, appreciate and use the tools at their disposal. They simply assume that once people start using a tool, they’ll know what to do. Thanks for the comment.

  • Ruth Zive

    I think that the marketing lesson here Mark is that you need to demonstrate to customers how your existing product solves problems or makes their lives easier.

    It’s really not an entirely open-ended discussion.

    You need to have a very clear sense of your value proposition; you need to own it and embrace it, and then articulate that value in a very thoughtful and meaningful way.

    It’s good to be mindful of customer needs and pain points, but if you offer a ‘blueberry’ and your customers are asking you for a ‘cucumber’ – you haven’t managed the conversation very well.

    • Mark Evans

      Totally agreed on being abundantly clear about what your product does and the problems it solves. At the same time, startups need to be stubborn enough to stick to their vision, while flexible enough to embrace something that may make the product better. In other words, it’s a fine balancing act. Thanks for the comment.

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