One of the key strategies that allowed my company to find success — and be named to Inc. Magazine’s “30 Under 30” list — was to listen to our customers and steer the company accordingly. It’s such a simple and essential tenet that it seems like following it would be second nature. However, like many companies we allowed ourselves to get distracted at certain points, and there were times when we lost the crucial connection with what our customers wanted from our business.
Listening to your customers involves an imprecise combination of market research, customer satisfaction data, revenue tracking and more. With more tools and data available than ever before, it can make this essential task seem simultaneously daunting and achievable. But by recognizing three common situations that can lead you astray — all of which happened to us — you can learn from our journey and avoid suffering the setbacks that occur when you stop listening to your customers.
1. Getting swept up in a passion project
Great ideas are often contagious; they can quickly catch and spread, creating an environment where you can’t focus on any one thing. Entrepreneurs are always looking to push the throttle, but often it’s because they just want to build, even if it’s not useful for their customer.
For example, for the first two years of Blank Label’s existence, our biggest technology investment was building a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) design tool for creating custom dress shirts. We worked with top 3-D graphics artists but ultimately learned that our customers were buying from us because of custom-fit, not custom-design. It took us much longer than it should have to realize this, because rather than listen to our customers we were just passionate about pushing the boundaries of online clothing design and digital customization.
The problem is that some entrepreneurs let stubbornness get in the way once their customers have rejected the new idea. They’ll think, “one day the public will catch up with my vision,” or “I’ve already invested so many resources in this plan; I have to make it work.”
2. Letting your competitors dictate trends
On the other end of the spectrum, it’s also possible to follow market trends too closely at the expense of the needs of your customers. When you see your competitors trying new directions and finding success, it’s understandable to want to imitate them in order to snag some of the market share (especially if you compete in a burgeoning market that has no immediate ceiling). This type of reaction does have the potential to net you short-term revenue growth, but it may also have the much more substantial effect of obscuring your core value proposition and causing you to blend in with the crowd.
We’ve seen this ourselves, as in the past few years, subscription commerce has been a hot trend. You can get a monthly box delivered of all sorts of products — shoes, makeup, accessories, bath products, shaving. We did a deep internal report on the benefits of doing a monthly shirt club, built out visual interfaces of what the web pages would look like, and even created some of the underlying subscription technology. But as we started doing the marketing plan, we realized this wasn’t something our customers had ever asked for. We surveyed our customers, and that reinforced our fear — people weren’t actually interested in automatically getting a new shirt every month or every quarter.
3. Falling victim to hubris
From the myth of King Midas to “Breaking Bad,” storytellers have always been interested in tales of hubris leading to the fall of the powerful. It’s an essentially human concept, and it often strikes a nerve with audiences who see themselves acting differently were they in a similar situation.
We’ve also fallen victim to it. In 2013, business was going well and we thought we were ready to expand, this time into women’s shirts. We occasionally got emails from women asking if we made them, so we thought we’d passed the customer-validation test. We worked with our manufacturers and were ready to launch. We submitted our campaign to Kickstarter and reached out to our email list. Then something unexpected happened — our customers said they didn’t talk about clothes with their significant others; moreover, they liked that we were a men’s brand. Blank Label was their thing, and they liked that it was contrary to being dragged to the department store by their spouses.
Listening carefully to your customers gives you a necessary insight into the essential benefits you provide for them, and will keep you from implementing a change in your business practices that would diminish or obscure these benefits. Remaining essential to your customers is one of the surest ways to build loyalty and spread brand awareness through your diehard fans. Seeing as how a recent study commissioned by Adobe found that 40 percent of all revenue in the U.S. comes from returning customers, building loyalty is a crucial step on the road to long-term prosperity, and listening to your customers helps build that loyalty.