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Does the customer really know best?

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This week we have been talking about customer satisfaction, and yet I wonder if a company that makes strategic decisions based on its customers is actually going to lose in the long run. When you think about it, most customers tend to want evolutionary movement in a product not revolutionary. We want it faster, cheaper with more features and the sooner the better. Yet all the greatest inventions come when companies ignore their customers and try something completely new.The microwave was first invented in the early 1940s, later patented and available to sell by Raytheon in 1945 at the low price of $5,000. Yet even as prices dropped dramatically to below $500 in 1967 it still did not catch on. Less than 40,000 total units were being sold worldwide still in 1970. Yet in 1975 the market exploded with sales of over million units per year. Turns out that microwave companies actually had to approach food companies and create a product that there was no demand for, a microwavable ready-to-eat meal. Before this time all meals were prepared from scratch just in time, there was no demand or need for the microwave. Only after both food and heating tool was created did customers start to see abilities that were now open to them and led to an entirely new market. Without a revolutionary idea that no one wanted the market might never have been created.But maybe we should listen to early leaders who said “Everything that can be invented has been invented”This of course is not an isolated case; it can just as easily be seen in the past few years in the automotive industry. It was not long ago that all customers seemed to want was larger vehicles with more features until Toyota decided to try something radically new and come out with an affordable hybrid that theoretically no one was asking for. The rest of course is history. So the question we must ask is how much should a company listen to customer opinions and product requests versus listening to engineers and ‘thought leaders’?It would be too easy to simply say both depending on what you are trying to achieve, but it is actually much more provoking and difficult of a question. In a tough economy when clearly budgets are tight not to mention reduced work forces there is little energy or money for ‘pie in the sky’ projects; to try and create the next revolutionary idea that will take 5-10 years to foster into a worthy market level. Yet without this mindset of questioning common beliefs and willing to experiment we are doomed to circle a single belief and more than likely be left behind by companies who are willing to try new ideas.So this is a challenge to all of us to move out of our comfort zone and while we must listen to our customers, maybe they are not the best ones to help define product roadmaps.

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