Bad Research Advice: Don’t Ask Your Customers

Summary: Customers CAN tell you what they want; you just have to know how to ask and what to ask. Not asking them is simply bad research advice.

4 minutes to read. By author Michaela Mora on September 17, 2010
Topics: Business Strategy, Market Research

Bad Research Advice: Don’t Ask Your Customers

I have often heard entrepreneurs repeating a piece of popular bad advice indicating that you should not ask customers directly what they want because they don’t know. I can tell that customers CAN tell you what they want; you just have to know how to ask and what to ask.

It has become fashionable to be “anti-survey” and regard customers like lost souls living without knowing why they do anything. In a WSJ article written by Dr. Barry Berman, from Hofstra University’s Zarb School of Business in Hempstead, N.Y, he exhorts businesses to not bother asking customers because you would just get an emotional response. According to Mr. Berman, you should only rely on behavioral and transactional data, ignoring that emotional reactions play a big role in many purchase decisions. Joining the club is Phillip Graves, who after a couple of years as a market researcher got disappointed and is now on a mission to make survey history.

In the era of cheap online survey tools when everybody thinks they can write surveys and ask questions, many companies end up with bad and misleading research results, which in turn give business owners reasons to support the position that there is no point in asking customers directly.

Another argument against asking customers is that several big brands have been born because their creators had an idea and went for it, without doing any research. Ford and Walmart are often cited as examples. Unfortunately, there are countless ideas, even patented ones, which have failed miserably because their creators didn’t ask their potential customers if they really needed the product.

Particularly now, with the fierce competition, we see in most product categories if you don’t do the right type of market research (which is more than popularity polls, focus groups, and sales data) you are doomed to fail. Even if the initial idea was successful, companies like Ford and Walmart, most big brands have market research teams dedicated to listening to their customers with the right methods. Starbucks is also an example of a company with unbelievable growth based on the CEO’s instinct. However, the Great Recession has taught him that instinct is not enough. He was notorious for despising research but now has recognized the need for it. To read it in his own words, check his interview with Business Week in 2009: Starbucks: Howard Schultz vs. Howard Schultz.

Many small businesses fail because their owners had an idea and never bothered to check whether there was a real need in the market (beyond asking their closest friends, relatives, and anecdotal data) that would sustain their idea. Even behavioral testing and sales data will give you only half of the story. If you really want to grow your business, you need to know not only what customers do, but also why they do it.

The aforementioned post and many who commented on it advise you to walk in the customers’ shoes and ask yourself what he would want and do. Unfortunately, in this case, human perception is very selective and we tend to “see and hear” what already confirms our beliefs, so doing anecdotal research as suggested by eavesdropping or making calls to your subconscious mind, will only give you biased information aligned with what you want to hear. You are too close to your idea to be objective.

My advice: Get a market research vendor, a neutral party with the experience that can first guide you to the best data collection method for your research objectives and target population. If you want to observe customers in Walmart, get a researcher with experience in ethnographic research who knows how to capture observational data and can give you an objective interpretation of what you are seeing or hearing.

In short, a professional researcher will help you craft the right questions to ask, select the best data collection method (qualitative or quantitative) and extract insights from the data without contaminating them with your expectations and desires.