Listen up, Mark Cuban

Mark Cuban, Internet entrepreneur and owner of the Dallas Mavericks as well as a number of other businesses, recently authored a blog post titled, “Why you should NEVER listen to your customers.

While his underlying post makes some interesting points (e.g., “part of every entrepreneur’s job is to invent the future”), the title and overall theme of his editorial sends a harmful message.

In his post he cites an example from a company he works with – “a company that at one point had a product that was not only best in class, but also technically far ahead of its competition.”

His story continues:

“Then it made a fatal mistake.  It asked its customers what features they wanted to see in the product and they delivered on those features. Unfortunately for this company, its competitors didn’t ask customers what they wanted. Instead, they had a vision of ways that business could be done differently and as a result better.  Customers didn’t really see the value or need, until they saw the product.  When they tried it, they loved it.”

I would suggest that the company was asking the wrong questions, the wrong way.  If customers are asked what they want, they are going to respond with what they know.  And what they know is often what you might expect to hear.  As Henry Ford said, “If I asked my customers what they want, they simply would have said a faster horse.”

But what Ford had – and so many successful business leaders have – is an understanding of customers’ needs, motivations and behaviors.  And this understanding comes from listening.  From empathizing.  From looking past what customers explicitly tell you to uncovering a latent need or insight into their lives.  Then solving for it.  It does not come from simply asking what features they’d like.

As Cuban rightly points out, it’s the company’s job to “create the future roadmap for [a] product or service.”  However, doing this without customers – as Cuban suggests to “NEVER listen to your customers” – is a sure path to failure.  Companies will fall into the trap of designing for themselves without seeing the challenge from the point of view of the customer.  Ultimately, it is that customer who will determine the success or failure of an idea or product.

While I don’t know any more about Mr. Cuban’s company or its competitors than what he shared in his post, I do know that never listening to customers is never the right answer.