Bad Research Advice: Don’t Ask Your Customers

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Letting your subconscience give you bad research insights


Someone recently sent me a post from Joshua Black where he categorically advises not to ask your customers directly what they want or what the problem is, because they don’t know. Among the things he recommends for listening to customers are going to Walmart for eavesdropping customers around and walking your dog to let your subconscious mind gives you the answers.


I hope that no serious business owner pays attention to this type of advice. Try going to the bank or to a VC to get money for your business based on that. 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 exorts 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 dissapointed and is now on a mission to make surveys 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 listen to their customers with the right methods. Starbucks is also an example of a company with an 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 of it. To read it in his own words, check his interview with Business Week in 2009: Starbucks: Howard Schultz vs. Howard Schultz.


Many small business 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 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 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 write 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.

Comments Comments

Jennifer Dennard Posted: September 17, 2010

Well put Michaela. As a consumer, and someone who works in market research – albeit on the marketing side – I find that emotional responses, though hard to quantify, are perhaps the most telling sign of what a customer wants, and should never be ignored. A good market researcher will listen, listen, listen … then do some number crunching. It’s all about being intuitive. Nice post.

Greg Timpany Posted: September 24, 2010

As a researcher myself, I have always lived by the creed that you have to get down in the trenches with your customers, by survey, focus group, analyzing transactional data and by direct observation.

No one method will yield a full picture.

Greg Timpany

Michaela Mora Posted: September 24, 2010

I totally agree with you. Dismissing a method or adhering to only one is like those diet plans that eliminate a food category (protein, carbs, etc.) giving you a nutrition deficiency of some sort. Each research method provides customer insights from a different angle and they should combined to get a full view of the issue at hand.

Sowmya Posted: October 31, 2010

Apple is a case in point where no research is done, but still products are a runaway hit…
So there are hard & fast way or the other…

Michaela Mora Posted: November 3, 2010

That may work for a while for Apple, if that is the case, like it was for Starbucks, until reality hit. They had to go back to basics in customer research. Howard Schultz, Stabucks CEO was famous for relying on instincts and despising research. He now has to change his mind set. Check this interview in the Business Week: Starbucks: Howard Schultz vs. Howard Schultz.

Brandon Yanofsky Posted: January 20, 2011

Great post Michaela. I’m a huge believer in asking customers what they want. So many businesses just make assumptions, and I think it’s one of the leading reasons most companies are doomed!

I think this is where social media is so powerful. You can talk with many of your customers and potential customers at once.

Michaela Mora Posted: January 20, 2011

Thanks for your comment Brandon. It is refreshing to hear that coming from a marketer! If you ever need help with marketing research for your customers, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Jeffrey C. Adler Posted: June 14, 2011

According to Mr. Berman, you should only rely on behavioral and transactional data? The “holy grail” of marketing research is CONVERGENCE — where you rely on converging conclusions from multiple types of data. If you read someone telling you to rely ONLY on one type of data — run away as fast as you can.

Michaela Mora Posted: June 14, 2011

Totally agree with you Jeffrey!

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