There are endless posts, articles, books, and videos offering advice like:
- Create value for customers. Don’t ship products or software that don’t serve their needs.
- Be like Apple. Research and know your customers so that you can build what they will want and love. (Insert Steve Jobs quote here!)
- Do design thinking. Empathize with users; really get to know their behaviors, tasks, and needs; and innovate the features that will delight them.
- Focus on customer satisfaction. Measure this with NPS, and constantly improve so customers will be happier, stay longer, and tell people how great you are.
- Your highest priority should be customer satisfaction, which you can achieve by frequently releasing quality products and software.
- You must get minimum viable products (MVPs) in front of target audiences for testing so you know you’re going in the right direction. Don’t run the risk of building too much without knowing your concepts are strong, usable, accessible, and solve customers’ problems well.
All this advice has one message in common: customer-centricity. Put target audiences at the center of everything you do so you can attract and keep customers.
It’s the advice we hear from many thought leaders. It’s in books about product strategy, innovation, and winning customers. Delivering value to target users is at the core of Agile and Lean principles.
But something isn’t clicking because most companies aren’t doing any of this.
So, let’s dive into the six all-too-common mistakes that alienate customers – and see how you can do better.
Mistake #1: Relying on guesses and assumptions.
Many people admire Apple and love to quote Steve Jobs, yet they fail to emulate Apple's success strategies. Apple spends roughly 6% of its annual revenue on research and development (R&D). Meanwhile, it's not uncommon for companies to pare down their R&D departments or disband them entirely (if they even had one to begin with!), thinking they’re too slow.
Rather than investing in behavioral research that gets to know target audiences, their tasks, unmet needs, mental models, and how to solve their problems, there’s a tendency to run surveys that merely confirm companies’ pre-existing beliefs. Instead of taking the time to implement an evidence-based approach, all too many companies work from guesses and run the risk of project failures.
How to do better
Great research empowers teams with evidence and accurate problem statements; these are fresh opportunities for your company to seize.
While companies are often hesitant to invest in research and better customer intelligence, just look at the long-term potential: a project might cost more and take longer than the business wants to budget, but if it can solve customers’ problems, enhance the value proposition, improve loyalty and word-of-mouth, or even disrupt the industry, it’s worth it.
Investing more in a project upfront can save time and money later by reducing the need for adjustments and proactively heading off concerns rather than leaving them to be fixed later.
It’s crucial to invest in research that goes beyond surveys and focus groups. Observing people is best; interviews can be great too when the right questions are asked in the right ways.
Put three dedicated CX or UX researchers on a project for four or five weeks, and you’ll learn more than you can imagine. These insights and recommendations should shape business strategy, decisions, and priorities, leading to improved product-market fit and differentiation.
Mistake #2: Using broken processes as an excuse for poor quality
Have you ever rushed a feature out, proclaiming it “good enough,” while also promising to fix it later? You’re not alone.
The excuse? That’s just the process: release something as quickly as possible, even if you know it’s broken or customers wouldn’t give it five stars. The aim? Get something out there and pray it only needs small fixes later.
If there is a better solution, shamefully, that might go undiscovered. Once the product or feature is released, the plan is just to iterate. In short, speed is prioritized over quality.
The build-test-learn cycle sounds great in theory, but without learning first and creating solutions based on real evidence and knowledge, you’re not exactly setting yourself up for success.
Everyone loves MVPs. The logic is that getting an unfinished product in front of a customer will show you if you’re going in the right direction. But the taste of the cheese alone doesn’t tell you if the pizza is going to be good.
Despite the risk of customers being unhappy with all these low-value releases, there's this nonchalant acceptance: public failures are just part of the process.
How to do better
MVPs are not customer-centric. They put speed over quality, and rarely deliver what customers need. If your customers need a car, giving them a skateboard won’t tell you if they’ll like the car you intend to build later.
Take a closer look at your ways of working. They should be efficient, prioritize quality, and need no excuses. You should play to each team member’s specialty, and give them the time and resources they need to do great work, if not their best work.
Customers might not mind waiting a few more weeks for a four- or five-star product update versus a one-, two-, or three-star release – they might even thank you for it. Customers don’t care how agile or lean our teams claim to be. They just want their needs and expectations met or exceeded.
To truly put the customer at the heart of everything you do, you can lean on experts who use human-centered design (HCD), a process with rigor and standards. HCD best practices are laid out in ISO 9241-210, a manual from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) on the ergonomics of human-computer interaction.
HCD starts with researching target audiences, using that information to create improvements or innovations, designing, testing, and iterating – all before your engineers write a single line of code.
This approach allows you to get early feedback through proper usability testing of UX prototypes. You don’t have to risk wasting weeks (or longer) of your engineering team’s time – or jeopardize your customers’ trust – in the hopes that you’ll find out later whether or not you went in the right direction.
Mistake #3: Ignoring customers’ feedback
It's an odd paradox. Many company processes focus on shipping fast in order to gather feedback, but when customers voice their concerns, suddenly there's a myriad of excuses. Why bother fixing a problem when there are new features to build and release? Customers will just have to figure it out or contact support for help.
Poor leaders deprioritize user problems and often find the users to be nuisances and complainers that can be ignored. They sometimes see negative customer comments and survey scores as lies and exaggerations. Such leaders disconnect themselves from the reality they don’t want to face.
How to do better
Work with researchers to tune into the voice of the customer (VoC) for complaints. Verify that these are real problems, and prioritize fixing them. Create teams that fix customer experience issues and technical debt while other teams work on new features.
Although your leaders might not be target customers, drop them into your ecosystem and have them perform common tasks. Their own frustration, confusion, and disappointment might elicit sympathy for struggling customers. Video clips of unhappy customers struggling with your products can also sway stakeholders and teammates.
You may also want to remind leaders that automatically disbelieving any negative sentiment about your product is the complete opposite of demonstrating empathy for customers’ experiences, which is what they should all be aiming for if they want to build a truly customer-centric organization.
Mistake #4: Passing problems down the line
Another common misconception is the belief that it's okay to release subpar products because customer support will come to the rescue.
But here's the reality: the customer is first hit with the disappointment of a not-so-great product. Then, they invest their time and patience, hoping customer support will resolve an issue they never should have had in the first place.
How to do better
It's easy for a project to seem successful when customer support is a line item in someone else’s budget. But imagine if you saw the full arc of the project, including the time and cost of customer support, the wait for customer feedback, its analysis, implementing new designs and fixes, potential delays to other projects, and the release of a refined version.
Suddenly, the true cost of compromising on quality becomes crystal clear.
Mistake #5: Over-focusing on business metrics
“Customer” metrics often don’t measure customers’ experiences or success in the product ecosystem. Leaders and execs may even push teams to improve metrics that work against customer needs. While customers want efficiency, leaders tell teams to make customers stay on screens longer so they engage more.
“I wish my task could be interrupted by a pop-up offering me something I don’t want,” said no customer ever.
You may well be tracking Net Promoter Scores (NPS) and running customer satisfaction surveys, but unless you’re putting in the work to create better products and solutions for customers, what’s the point?
It’s nothing more than wishful thinking to believe that more marketing and better customer support experiences will raise customer satisfaction scores if you ignore why people need so much customer support in the first place.
Customer-centric metrics are a great start, but they must be paired with real investment in customer-centric research and design. And, while it is possible to manipulate customers in order to achieve business goals, this is not the path to short- or long-term customer satisfaction.
How to do better
It’s essential to find a balance between business goals and customer expectations.
Businesses need to reassess their KPIs and performance metrics, ensuring they resonate with how customers define success, rather than just measuring how well they’ve manipulated customer behavior to ensure that business goals are accomplished. For example, you might aim to lower the time spent on tasks as well as the number and severity of errors.
Mistake #6: Over-reliance on design thinking
Design thinking has been heralded as a game-changer for fostering customer-centricity, promoting empathy, and driving innovation.
However, at many companies, design thinking is nothing more than a buzzword followed by endless workshops and reduced focus on the most important phase of a project: deep, early research that provides evidence that will shape our solutions.
Often, companies pull staff away from vital tasks to guess at solutions to ambiguous problems for customers they only vaguely understand. Or they workshop how to achieve business goals and come up with solutions that sometimes work against the target audience and their needs.
The result? Frustrated customers who feel like mere pawns in a game, and ultimately complain, downgrade, or leave.
The term "design" should ideally represent a process through which we understand target audiences, see the world through their eyes, catalog their problems, and then devise bespoke solutions. However, many companies make the mistake of viewing all designers – whether they’re UX designers or product designers – as order-takers whose role is to make things pretty.
How to do better
Design thinking gained popularity when IDEO reduced and repackaged Human-Centered Design (HCD). Companies intrigued by design thinking have now been doing it long enough to have some honest conversations about whether or not it’s working.
Are you more innovative? Did you improve customer experiences? Did you attract new customers, exceed their needs, and earn their loyalty? Did you lay off skilled HCD experts (probably in your CX or UX team) because you thought everybody was a great design thinker? Did the number of gambles you took on new products and features ultimately make you less efficient?
It’s not too late to turn things around. Level up into HCD, and consider opening jobs and budget for HCD specialists.
Your ability to attract, satisfy, and retain customers starts with your knowledge about them. What you think you know might not be accurate or current.
If you value speed over quality, then you can certainly skip research and run with assumptions. But challenge yourself to consider the longer arcs of projects; when guesses and assumptions turn out to be wrong, how much time and budget does it take to fix the resulting problems? What new problems were created when we chose to ignore our mistakes and deprioritize fixes?
Challenge yourself and your teams to prioritize quality over speed. Your customers demand five-star quality and hate settling for less. It’s time to break the cycle of mediocrity and focus on the excellent value you can create for target audiences with every product, service, and feature.