The Three Biggest Lies Told about Customer Research

This essay discusses three of the biggest and most pervasive customer research lies, and it explains ways to expose and overcome them to ensure your company reaps the benefits of properly conducted customer research.

Many people tell lies about customer research, often dismissing its value to innovation in products, services, and the customer experience.  This essay discusses three of the biggest and most pervasive of these lies, and it explains ways to expose and overcome them to ensure your company reaps the benefits of properly conducted customer research.

Lie Number 1: We Don’t Learn Anything New
I recently presented Voice of the Customer research findings to an industrial client.  The room was filled with product development professionals and senior executives.  At some point in the presentation, a senior executive raised his hand to speak.  “We already knew all this,” he said, “Customer research never tells us anything new.”  It was an awkward moment.  It’s not the first time this has happened to me.  But I wasn’t too worried.  I know he’s lying, and I can prove it.

After politely acknowledging that any research will reveal some findings a company already knows, I asked, “If you already knew this about your customers, what have you done about it?”  In other words, what have you been waiting for? On this occasion, as in similar situations before this, the executive said nothing of substance.  He talked somewhat unconvincingly for thirty seconds or so before his colleagues pressured him into admitting that they had done nothing.  They could not point to a single action directly related to addressing the customer research findings that they supposedly already knew about. 

Why didn’t the senior executive I mentioned before do anything, and why do countless other executives in this same situation also do nothing?  Sometimes it’s because the necessary technology isn’t available; on other occasions, the costs are too high.  But most often these are solvable problems.  The more common reason is a lack of confidence.  Companies lack the confidence to pick one or a few customer problems to focus their innovation efforts on.  Customer research provides this confidence.  It tells you what is important to customers, and it does so with evidence resting on sound science that everyone can agree upon.

Lie Number 2: We Already Talked to Customers and Did Voice of the Customer
“We already talked to customers, and they don’t want what the research says.”  You’ll often hear this from engineers, sales personnel, product management professionals, or others who at least occasionally talk to customers.  The problem is that they’ve mistaken a few customer conversations for systematic Voice of the Customer research.  Talking to a few customers – most often your best customers at that – is hardly a systematic sample of the market.  It’s typically a very biased view that can lead to a false understanding of the overall market.

In contrast, a good sample gets beyond the customers you already know well and talk to all the time.   It includes not only current customers, but also non-customers.  It should include customers who buy a lot from you now and those who buy much less.  It should cover different applications for your product, as well as companies located in different geographic regions.  In addition, your sample should vary across different roles within an organization: end users, supervisors, managers, financial decision makers and owners or the executive-level equivalent.  Failing to examine this range of perspectives provides a biased view, one that might result in missing important requirements and overlooking objections that your product must overcome to succeed.

Lie Number 3: Customers Don’t Know What They Want Until They See It
The third big lie states, “Customers don’t know what they want until they see it.”  This implies that market research can’t help in guiding early-stage product development, but rather is only useful once a customer can read about, see, or touch a product.  Early-stage research to support product-and-service innovation, however, should not focus on any of this. 

Instead, early-stage innovation should avoid too much discussion of product features and solutions.  This research – in the so-called fuzzy front end of innovation – should emphasize uncovering the functional-and-emotional benefits customers seek from your product, service, or customer experience to deliver.  If you know how to ask, customers are good at talking about actual experiences with products and services, including what they like, dislike, and why.  This results in a detailed understanding of the functional, experiential, and emotional benefits customers seek.  The functional is what the product or service does; the experiential is what it’s like to use a product or service; and the emotional is how using it makes customers feel.  This information guides strategic product-and-service development by pointing you toward the right problems to solve – before new features have been developed.  This saves time and money in the development process.

The Truth Behind the Lies
The next time someone tells one of these three lies to you, remember these ways of handling it.

  • Customer research provides you with the confidence to act, and this is new: if you already knew what to do, why haven’t you acted, and why has customer research come up as a topic at all?
  • Although it’s great that you talk to customers all the time, unless you have a systematic sample, the group you’re talking to probably doesn’t represent the attitudes of the market.
  • Customers don’t need to see a product. They can talk about their experience with what they like and don’t like in the products they use.  In fact, early-stage research shouldn’t focus on product concepts or features at all.

Understanding the truth behind the most common lies told about customer research will help you overcome these objections.  It will enable you to conduct effective customer research, and achieve greater success in product innovation, service enhancement, and the development of distinctive customer experiences.


For more on the latest market research news, trends and best practices, visit the AMS Insights Blog.  This content was originally published by Applied Marketing Science, Inc. . Visit their website at

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