Why Companies STILL Make Mediocre Products

22 03 2010

I just finished teaching a class in Product Management up at the University of San Francisco MBA program and I really enjoyed the experience. The 35 students in the class were very bright and came from a great variety of backgrounds, making the class all that much more interesting and exciting.

After weeks of telling my students to “listen to the customer” I am still freshly astounded to find in real life that something as basic as this is still not happening.

This past Sunday, I took part in a market research panel where I got to spend 3 ½ hours driving four cars and commenting on them. The market research company specifically picked me because I currently drive a Mazda3 hatchback.  OK. So far, so good.

Being somewhat opinionated, I was literally dying to tell them what I thought about current automobiles and my criteria for selecting an automobile. I love my Mazda3 and am highly critical of a lot of other cars that I see on the road today. Sadly, that was not to be. What I found when I got to the event was that the market researchers had a set list of questions and very little room for any input that did not fall into their question list – which the vast majority of my input did.

For two hours, I drove around with a market researcher in a variety of hatchback cars and literally buried him with my input on them. None of which he could capture because he had no mechanism to do so other than the highly structured set of questions he was required to ask me.

So what happened to listening to the customer? Sadly, even though these guys were spending a literal boatload of money, they were not listening to me at all. At the end I got paid $200 and I felt like I was stealing their money. They learned absolutely nothing about me or my true buying criterion.

Here are a few examples of what the Auto Companies might have learned if they had actually listened to me:

  • I will not buy any car where the seat pan does not tilt. I have long legs and cannot get comfortable unless I can tilt the front of the seat pan up. None of the test drive cars were adjustable in this way. Instant disqualifier!
  • I care a lot about gas mileage. 30+ mpg highway is a requirement for me. They never asked me about gas mileage at all. Amazing!
  • They asked me to rate the four test cars against each other and they asked me about my current Mazda3, but they never asked the Big Question: Would I consider buying any of the four cars instead of a Mazda3 next time? The answer is an emphatic “NO” but they will never know that.
  • They never asked me what my buying criterion for a new car was.
  • They did ask me an extensive set of questions about the back seat of cars, which I told them I hardly ever use. Why?
  • They never figured out that the reason I like hatchbacks is so that I can fold down the back seat and use the big cargo space, not for people.
  • They asked me a lot of questions about the sound system, but they never actually let me touch the sound system in the cars. So, they will never know that I really care a lot about sound quality and require an iPod connector/charger. They asked me about road noise, but never made the connection between road noise and sound quality of the audio systems.
  • They will never know that I will not remotely consider any car with a lot of gratuitous chrome crap on it. American auto manufacturers love chrome grills, chrome around the side windows, chrome door handles, and chrome accessories everywhere. Fail!

The truly heartbreaking thing is the sheer amount of money these people are spending to collect utterly irrelevant information. They brought 8 automobiles, booked an expensive hotel in Palo Alto CA, brought a large team of people, built a survey, brought PDAs to help them collect survey data and will be operating three groups of people per day for over a week, while paying participants $200 each for their help.

I wish I knew which auto manufacturer was paying for this study (I have a strong suspicion). If I did, here is what I would tell them:

  • Actually LISTEN to your customers and have mechanisms to capture free-form information. They can and will surprise you with their input. It is how you will spot new trends.
  • Stop trying to quantify everything! A lot of car preference is emotion.
  • Good design is about about the whole experience; form, function, emotional response.  Not how I feel about the front fender on a scale of 1-10.
  • Watch your customers use the product and notice when they are struggling. Like when I had trouble adjusting mirrors in one car, and could not adjust my seat to a comfortable position in any of them.
  • Ask the key question: “Would you consider any of these cars as a replacement for your car and why or why not?”
  • Ask they basic questions: What do you look for in a car? Why did you buy your current car?

Somewhere, in an office park far away, an army of quants is waiting to get our data, tabulate it, average it, cross correlate it, and run conjoint analysis on it – all to come up with the wrong conclusions.

Put away the PDAs, the spreadsheets, and the analytical packages and actually LISTEN to your customers.




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