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Or rather, why most successful companies don’t listen to customers directly or without a carefully constructed process.

Part of the problem – and I touched on it more lightly here – is that most of the feedback you actually get is contradictory folderol.

Another part of the problem, well, I’ll let Jeff Vogel of the awesomely cool Spiderweb Software do the talking for a moment.

Got all that? Okay. Now, I’m going to settle in and use my own blog as an example for a moment, and then we’ll get back to more general principles.

As readers, you’re technically customers. That is, I’m producing something and you’re consuming that – and paying with your attention and donations. Perhaps that is stretching things a little, but I’m working with stuff that I’m close to and confident of.

So, for 2010 the number of unique readers of this blog was on the order of 250,000 plus change. Yes, figuring out unique readers is an inexact sort of process, but using best-practices that is the figure.

So, a quarter of a million of you turned up at least once during the year. Some of you only turned up once, some of you just twice or three times per year. Many of you read monthly, or weekly, catching up on dozens of posts per visit. Only about a thousand of you seem to be crazy enough to turn up seven days per week without fail.

Still and all, there’s a flatteringly large audience.

Now, as my customers, some of you feel inclined to send me feedback about ‘the product’ (that is, the blog) in some fashion. Out of that quarter-million, about 30 of you do this each month. I’ll use October 2010 as an example, being a record month for the blog.

That month, I got 37 pieces of direct feedback on things. Four of them were supportive comments or financial donations. I am definitely fond of both.

The other 33 were assorted variations of the “You are always wrong, you don’t know what you’re talking about, your news has never ever been correct, Philip won’t stand down as CEO, your opinions are always wrong and you should die in a fire, get out of Second Life and do everyone a favour, you commie fascist” sort. The proportion of feedback remains relatively constant month to month. What the remaining 249,963 unique readers thought in 2010 is an enigma.

So, on the surface of it, the feedback that I receive is overwhelmingly (~88%) in favour of me quitting writing this blog immediately, if not sooner.

The reason that I’m still here and that you’re still here is that I’m clearly not listening to my customers.

But I’m a tiny blog, and thus my risks are smaller. What about a more substantial business with larger risks?

Well, the usual thing is to get someone (or several someones) who are notably not involved in the creation of the product to gather and analyse the desires and needs of the customers independently of what those customers are necessarily saying. Not everyone knows their own mind on things, and everyone is capable of saying things that they don’t necessarily really mean, or expressing opinions that are counter-productive to actually getting what they want/need from a product, service or business.

This is called “Marketing” – I know that most people tend to think of marketing as just the selling and advertising process, but that’s only one side of the marketing coin.

The fact is that the market research side doesn’t need to be (and often isn’t) anywhere near as in-your-face. Market research can (and frequently does) happen quietly, and almost invisibly, with data about customer opinions and preferences collated, sorted, analysed and then funnelled back to product developers to make decisions from, without a single product developer having to be told to “go die in a fire”. People who feel bad about what they’re doing don’t generally do a good job. That’s a fact.

When it is successful, it works very well. Product developers refine existing products or create new ones that satisfy customers without every having to go near a blog or a forum or read a tweet about what they’re doing. When it fails, because marketing isn’t assiduous enough, or is asking the wrong questions, or because the product developers (rightly or wrongly) don’t trust the marketing people, then it all collapses, and nobody gets what they want.

The whole process is complicated by the fact that some people are going to give intentionally spurious responses just to mess up the data-quality, and the fact that surveying everybody in a sizeable customer-base is impractical. Some people will resent being polled at all. On the other hand, if you don’t poll everyone, some people will complain that their viewpoint isn’t represented, even though dozens or hundreds of others with identical views may have been included in the sample.

The short version is that there’s a whole lot of difference between listening to your customers, and finding out what it is that they actually want and acting on it. Quite often the two data-sets do not even come close to overlapping.

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Categories: Business, Opinion.

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