How Customers Saying "No" Can Become a Consumer Experience "Yes"

Repeat after me: "Your customer doesn't have the answers!"

I thought we put this to rest fifteen years ago, but apparently there are a number of companies still trying to create innovative consumer experiences by asking people what they want. Consumers want what their neighbors have. They have no idea what's next--they consume!

starbucks storeAsking customers what they want blinds companies and prevents them from delivering innovative consumer experiences. Traditional research methods are limited for two key reasons: 1) people's existing reality limits their understanding of future possibilities; and, 2) people cannot envision how the parts come together equal more than the whole. Consumer experience innovation is based on deep consumer insights, but those insights rarely come from asking them what they want. Malcolm Gladwell asserts: "Asking someone to explain [their behavior and intent] is not only a psychological impossibility...but it biases them in favor of the conservative, in favor of the known over the unknown."

Imagine twenty years ago asking a room full of moms if they'd be interested in paying $4.50 for a cup of coffee. Or even better, what if they were told it wasn't for the coffee it was for the coffee experience. We would never have had Starbucks. Fifteen years later, imagine asking moms if they'd like to have cute stuffed animals with that $4.50 cup of coffee that has become central to their existence. They say "yes" and the great erosion of the coffee experience begins.

Every industry has its issues it gets hung up on. Hospitality has many--shower soap is just one of them. Determining whether to switch shower soap from a bar to a bulk dispenser consumes an inordinate amount of energy. Switching would save a hotel over $4 a day per room. But if your ask consumers, they'll tell you they prefer bar soap. They will describe how bulk dispensers remind them of truck stops and how gross those bathrooms are and how once in a truck stop... A lot of companies would listen to this and stick with the bar soap. It's easy. The customer said they wanted it.

starwood soapStarwood didn't listen. It redefined bulk dispensing by putting its Bliss branded spa products in a redesigned dispenser and connecting it to an overall story of cheap-chic modern travel. In the process they enhanced the customer experience and pocketed $4 per room.

So what do you do? We need consumer insights, but we have to find better ways to get them. We need to model existing behaviors, attitudes and values and then apply what we know about future trends to create experiences that surprise and delight consumers. We need to leverage the archetypal models of Abraham Maslow, Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell because they've done some pretty deep thinking on the subject of peoples needs, meaning and storytelling. Their frameworks allow us to understand hierarchy of needs, define consumer journeys and develop meaningful character. When we do ask consumers for feedback, we need to help them envision the future by building scenarios and prototyping early in the process. These tools are no less rigorous than traditional market research tools. Based on a combination of scenario planning, social science and decision management practices, these tools create frameworks that are necessary to drive consumer experience innovation.

It is often at the moments when the customer says not to do something that an opportunity to innovate exists. What new consumer insights tools are you developing to drive consumer experience innovation?

Over the last several years the innovation discussion has shifted from a focus on product and business innovation to consumer experience. Companies are increasingly interested in creating value by delivering better consumer experiences, but many are not quite sure how to get there. The results have ranged from a proliferation of Apple-like Genius Bars to frustrated project teams whose projects never make it to market. These companies are finding it surprisingly difficult to deliver great consumer experiences. This week, Steve McCallion explores some of the challenges companies face when trying to deliver consumer experience innovation.

Read Steve McCallion's blog Beyond the Widget
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Steve McCallion is a skilled innovation architect and brand strategist with a rare balance of design sensibility and strategic thinking. He has led groundbreaking work including redefining Umpqua Bank's role as an anchor for community prosperity, creating Sirius Satellite Radio's award-winning experience for the "iPod fatigued" and working with real estate developers Gerding Edlen to create more meaningful neighborhoods. His other clients include Xerox, Black & Decker, Whirlpool, FedEx, McDonald's, Coleman, Kenwood, and Compaq.

Steve's primary charge is to foster Ziba's consumer experience practice. He founded the company's award-winning Design Research and Planning practice group which has developed many proprietary research and design planning methodologies that have helped numerous clients understand the essence of their customers, win design awards, obtain patents and succeed in the market. He was named as one of Fast Company's Masters of Design in 2006.

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6 Comments

  • Dave Wilcox

    It's a shame the floating survey dohickey was on the screen. I was going to refer this article to some customers. Don't want to subject them to an annoying survey though

  • Steve Portigal

    I agree with the thesis here but I'm always reminding people that you can still ASK those questions but you need to be wise with how you interpret and act on the response. If people reject the idea of $4.50 coffee, then you clearly have some work to do to create a compelling value proposition. If people can't articulate a vision beyond the current product or service experience, isn't that information useful to you? Of course!

    --
    Portigal Consulting - http://www.portigal.com/
    All This ChittahChattah - http://www.portigal.com/blog/

  • mark timm

    Great article. I always try to identify the core need of the customer and create a fool-proof dead simple idea/concept to fulfil that.

    photo editor

  • Marc Barros

    love it! as an entrepreneur i struggle with this all the time in trying to understand the one core thing our customers need. it's hard to simplify a product to do one thing and do it great.