Whatever you do, don’t listen to your customers.

Muzeable Thinking No. 3 from Tim Brooks 5th November 2012

Recently a senior client tried to educate me. He said that their business was incredibly simple – already an increasingly unlikely start point in our current epoch. He said, that they have a [quality] product and then they listen to their customers and then they give them what they want/need. Simple! [GULP!]

It is hard to criticize as the business is doing well in a hugely difficult, highly commoditised, category. But, I do feel the need to comment.

  • Firstly, when your customers are major multiple retailers, then too much listening can be positively dangerous. When dealing with customers who are big, powerful, fast moving and often focused on the SHORT TERM, being responsive can, and usually does, lurch into being reactive.
  • Your strategy, your growth, your sustainability is not irrelevant to them, but it only really matters at points of temporary alignment or when they see the colour of your money. In tough times it all gets ignored in the battle to increase the daily till receipts.
  • Once you have drifted into being reactive [which is what listening as a plan nearly ALWAYS becomes], then holding the line and thinking about the strategic ramifications of key decisions drifts with it.
  • In this scenario there will be only two outcomes; downward margin pressure and over-promotion/price-led approaches – both leading to a gradual decline in brand health.
  • Retailers – businesses I respect hugely – are brutally efficient, relentless and effective in their ability to ravage and dominate businesses and brands that lose their raison d’être and defensible position in the category. The world is littered with borrowed-time-brands running on 70/80% of sales sold on promotion. Reactive listening will simply speed this decline up.

So, I came to the conclusion that listening to customers is unsustainable for a business seeking growth. More than that it is a hugely old fashioned and increasingly silly idea. The net result MUST be a reactive business. It must drive strategic dysfunctionality [unless you only have one customer!] and inconsistency in action, if not thought. At some point a set of complex challenges and issues will arrive that will require big, strong thinking and decisions. The listening, reactive business will not have a clear enough clarity of purpose to manage this. The listening and reactive business will not have enough leverage. It will have seen its negotiating stance gradually weakening over time – death by a 1000 cuts. The listening and reactive business will not have the courage to respond – saying yes all the time builds a numbness that leads to a demoralized and disheartened organisation.

And do you know what… I don’t even think customers really like it or more importantly benefit from the sycophancy of listening.

So, stop listening to customers and giving them what they want and start building a superior perspective on what the world – category/shopper/consumer – needs. Then start dialoguing with your customers to determine the best way to implement YOUR strategy with them. The net result might be some of that clichéd win-win stuff. Whatever, it must get beyond just being a negotiation stance – a macho attempt to say ‘no’ occasionally etc. and start to focus on the core attributes and behaviour of a high performance team; a shared purpose, some specific and measurable objectives, some of which articulate longer term outcomes etc. All powered by a clear perspective that defines how you will deliver growth. This will quickly change the dynamics of any customer relationship. It’s not easy, but it might just be the only way.

It’s well documented that it’s no different for consumer facing businesses. They have proved categorically that listening to consumers is no basis for anything very breakthrough or important.

Don’t get me wrong, always have the customer/consumer in the room, yes, listen to what they are saying, but never, never, never let that act of listening get enshrined in your purpose or strategic intent. I know there are businesses that might be exceptions to this rule – I’d like to hear about them – but I suspect not many.

2 Responses to “Whatever you do, don’t listen to your customers.”

  1. Ian Waddell says:

    This is a really interesting piece Tim. The brand that immediately sprang to mind as I neared the end of it is Ryanair. A brand that doesn’t listen to its customers, is perhaps one of the most frequently criticised but stays true to its core strategy of competing in the low cost flight space. In fact, not listening to its customers is an enabler to this strategy. The minimisation [non existence?] of its customer service and its strictly no-frills service allow Ryanair to maintain margins whilst the price of fuel, ground crew charges etc are on an upward spiral. So whilst not listening to your customers might sound like a crazy idea – it is the very thing that one brand has built its business upon.

    • Tim Brooks says:

      Thanks for the comment Ian. I hadn’t thought of it like this… I’d been thinking more in terms of becoming reactive and failing to find a True North… Ryanair have made a virtue of ignoring the category conventions of ‘service’ and to date it has worked… I am sure they would say that this is driven by a ‘superior perspective on what the world needs’ – summarised as ‘give me price versus ‘soft’ service or at least the choice… Time will tell if they are right! Tim @ Muzeable

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