Why ignoring customer feedback can be a good thing

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New research indicates that some businesses are better off ignoring customer opinions when designing products.

Businesses have long benefited from the insights that can be gleaned from customer feedback.

Voice of the Customer programmes enable organisations to improve service levels, and consequently customer satisfaction levels, as well as help organisations identify in-house changes that can improve operational performance.

And, of course, insights from customers can also drive product and service innovation.

One oft-quoted example is McDonald’s decision to roll out an all-day breakfast menu, prompted by findings from its customer surveys, which subsequently helped to drive a 5.7% increase in same-store sales in the US.

But while customer feedback can lead to more successful services and products – sometimes it’s better to ignore customer opinions.

That’s the conclusion of Jan van den Ende, professor of management of technology and innovation at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), who says that customer opinions only improve the development of certain types of products.  

While new functions or technology can be improved by customer opinion, for products designed to suit the identity of the user, it can hinder their market success, suggests Van den Ende.

Innovations of an aesthetic nature, designed to convey emotional experience or express one’s identity, often rely on the element of surprise, which makes customer involvement more complicated.

Alongside colleagues Marina Candi and Gerda Gemser, Van den Ende interviewed both the business and leading product managers of 132 recent innovation products to measure customer involvement against revenue and profitability.

“Developing products in co-operation with customers is a fashionable practice in product design. If you involve customers repeatedly during the innovation process, their feedback is not bound by company history or only attached to current innovations, which makes them more creative,” says Van den Ende.

“Yet our research found that this was only the case when customers were involved in the development of functions or technology in a product – for example by involving surgeons in the design of a new surgical instrument. This is because feedback from potential customers early in the design process helps to create the best functioning prototypes.

“When customers were involved in hedonic innovations, designed to create an emotional experience or suit the identity of the user such as a pair of fashionable shoes or a smartphone, the reverse was true. As Steve Jobs said, customers do not know what they want until we’ve shown them.”

However, the research suggests that when designing innovative hedonic products, asking what customers want can actually reduce the chance of market success.

Van den Ende concludes: “Innovations of an aesthetic nature, designed to convey emotional experience or express one’s identity, often rely on the element of surprise, which makes customer involvement more complicated.

“For these kinds of products, success is often the result of a more social process, with public opinion usually shaped by reviews and reception on social media. For example, who is endorsing the product and who hates it? These reactions can be hard to predict by involving customers at the design stage.” 

About Neil Davey


Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.


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