Is the customer always right?

Martin at Telepocalypse describes an experience with T-Mobile in which he had a difficult time getting to the product that seems closest to what he actually wants. He concludes:

It really isn’t hard. Just listen to the customer, and give them the product that meets their needs for a reasonable price. Or am I asking too much?

Well, given my devil’s advocate nature, I will say that these can be difficult decisions for companies. I don’t know if it applies in this specific case with T-mobile, but this seemingly simple doctrine can have wrinkles. I can say that I’ve been involved in decisions at various companies, where giving the customer what they wanted, turned out badly for everyone.

Customers can be wrong. They might think they want something, when really everything we know as the company offering that product tells us that particular customer is not going to be happy with that product. Should we let the customer fail? Sometimes the answer is yes, of course. But there can be cases where, say the company has a lot of history with certain scenarios, they know certain products applied to certain circumstances provide a poor customer experience. Even if it’s not for your sake, no company actually wants customers to be unhappy. It’s bad for the bottom-line. So they steer you toward a product that their history says is more likely to make you satisfied in the end. At the same time, it doesn’t work to play daddy and force all customers to do things “the right way” for its own sake either.

These can be tricky situations. I’ll give one example with PhoneGnome. In the beginning, we required customers to have a traditional landline. We wouldn’t support them if they were using Vonage or some other “substitute” service. We sincerely thought this was for their own good. What were we thinking? It’s not up to us to tell customers what kind of phone line is best. So we lifted that restriction, and now we don’t care what kind of phone service they attach to PhoneGnome, plain landline, Cable phone service, broadband phone, whatever. We were putting our bias on customers in a “daddy knows best” kind of way. It’s hard not to bring those biases into product offerings.

For a counter example, we have had situations where self-described “advanced” users request some knob (“but these go to 11”) and then they tweak that knob, break things, demand technical support to fix it, and are not happy. So now we gave them what they wanted, and it caused everybody grief. You don’t give them what they want and they’re flamming you up and down the block. Give them what they want, and they’re bleeding you dry in support costs. What’s a product manager to do?

1 comment for “Is the customer always right?

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