We all seem to spend our days either making decisions or sitting in meetings, where we frequently wind up making decisions.  For many of these decisions we have all the facts we need, or know where to get them. For the rest we have to make assumptions.  In the case of decisions involving your customers, the most reliable source of information is directly from these customers (except for a few notable exceptions discussed later).

Some Example of Decisions With Known Facts

Lets say you have been in business for a number of years and have good data about salespeople’s learning curves and their productivity.  It is easy to figure out when to hire the next salesperson so you can meet your revenue plan; you know how much sales each new salesperson will generate per month as she learns the products and company, how much she will generate per month when fully trained and how many leads your lead gen. efforts can provide her going forward.

If you are in Manufacturing you know which step in your process is the bottleneck and what you have to invest to remove the bottleneck.  You also know which step will become the bottleneck when you invest to remove the current pinch point.  So deciding when to make investments to support your projected demand is straightforward.

Examples of Decisions Without Enough Known Facts

Your business has a well-established suite of products and services that address a range of problems common to a large customer base.  A company offering a new product they claim is a natural fit for your customers has recently approached you.  After reviewing everything, they tell you there are still questions about how your customers will react to the new offer.  Someone suggests running an experiment in one geographical or customer area and you have to make a yes/no decision.  In this case your have another option that is less disruptive and not as likely to tip your hand to your competitors. You decide to brief a few of your key sales people on the opportunity and send them out with a sales presentation and a set of questions to see how the customers react.  You are collecting the Voice of your Customers.

An easier example to get your head around.  Based on feedback obtained from transaction surveys you have to decide if you should extend the hours your call center is staffed and, if yes, how many additional hours per week to operate.  Again, contact your key customers and determine the importance of new hours to them, what impact it will make on your future business, and are there any alternatives to just adding staff that will improve your customer satisfaction at a lower cost than adding people.

Examples Where Customers Do Not Have the Answer

Henry Ford is widely quoted as saying “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”  In a Harvard Business Review blog post titled “Henry Ford Never Said The Fast” the author not only concludes that Ford never said it, he concludes that when innovating, ignoring your customer’s insights are sometimes OK and other times can lead to a mess.

The second example is from Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement address.  While talking about creating a product that did not exist at all “…. you can’t connect the dots looking forward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.  You have to trust something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.  This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

My conclusion from all this is that you should always ask, “can my customers intelligently answer my question”?  If you believe your customers can then you had better go and talk with them and, if not, trust whatever you believe in but keep checking to see if and when you should begin talking again.