When listening to customers is bad

Companies love to hear vendors who preach the dictum, "we listen to customers." But it can mean many things cautions Gartner (reg.

Companies love to hear vendors who preach the dictum, "we listen to customers." But it can mean many things cautions Gartner (reg. req.), quite possibly that the vendor has, "run out of ideas for the future and has abdicated responsibility for its product strategy to customers." 

Of course listening to customers is important, and an expectation placed on vendors if they’re going to learn about how their products or services are used, the cost of ownership, and so on. But letting that feedback drive marketing strategy is dangerous says Gartner: 

Vendors that listen to customers in lieu of following their own visions will fail to find new growth opportunities — especially those with large installed bases. Vendors must find the right balance between developing a new technology to gain more customers and easing established customers into a new technology. Paying too much attention to customers can divert vendors from creating a compelling vision for the future. The larger the installed base, the bigger this problem becomes.

How can you test what a vendor really means when it says that it’s listening to customers? Gartner lists several things you can do to pick up on a lack of strategy:

  • Look for inconsistent messages: Compare what the vendor tells your company directly with what it says in its marketing statements on the Web, in its public presentations and elsewhere.
  • Gauge the creativity of the vendor's product plans: Determine if plans merely develop from established products or if they contain important elements that you and other customers wouldn't have thought of on your own.
  • Evaluate the scenarios that the vendor imagines customers will face in the future: Determine what kind of business environment in which the vendor imagines its customers will use its product.
  • Watch what the vendor commits to: If product plans involve major changes, such as a new architecture or integration with another class of products, the vendor has envisioned future benefits that will make short-term inconveniences for itself and its customers worthwhile.
  • Follow the personnel involved in setting the vendor's product strategy: Who drives the strategy — someone in the customer-facing side of the marketing department or a strategic thinker? Are engineers involved?

These tips should be applied universally to any vendor or product decision.