‘Customers don’t know what they want’: Fact or fiction?

Should we listen to them?

Many new entrepreneurs today think that listening to prospective customers during the product design phase is unnecessary.


Possibly because a lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Does this sound familiar?

That’s right – it’s a famous quote from Steve Jobs in a 1998 interview with Business Week!

And is understandable why this lure people into thinking that sounds like a good idea… After all, Jobs has been an absolute business icon for millions of people and a highly influential figure in the entrepreneurship community, so it’s not a surprise that this idea spread!

But what’s really the logic behind this business mantra?

I’m glad you asked!

In this post, I am going to shed some light on both sides of this argument and answer today’s key question: Do Customers Know What They Want?

Without further delay let’s start digging!

It’s not the consumers’ job to figure out what they want

“It’s not the consumers’ job to figure out what they want’…yes, Steve Jobs also said that!


Well, one possible explanation according to Zoltán Gócza, is because: “people make confident but false predictions about their future behavior… In addition, human preferences are rather unstable.

So, if that causation is right, Steve Jobs probably realized that it makes much more sense to trust his and colleagues’ instincts, (after all, they’re the domain experts), rather than letting some random customers tell them how the new product should look like.

A different explanation?

Gregory Ciotti in an article on this topic thinks of it this way: “Apple’s competitive edge, [many] argue, is that they have been able to avoid the “sameness trap.” When you rely on consumer input, it is inevitable that they will tell you to do what other popular companies are doing. How can you get ahead of the curve if your customer feedback mostly consists of today’s popular ideas?

Under this scenario, Jobs probably came to terms with the limitations of involving customers during the product design phase and decided to do it his own way…

But you kn0w what; let’s put things into perspective by sharing some real life examples of companies that listened to the customer but it didn’t go as planned!

Listened and failed! Lessons learned from 3 companies that have “been there, done that”

1. Walmart

The customers’ request: They wanted Walmart’s aisles decluttered, which used to be packed, big time, with products.

You Asked. We Listened: What was Walmart’s response? You guessed right…they listened and cleared out space by reducing the excess inventory that “lived” stacked in the aisles

The end result: The sales plummeted, according to Phil Terry’s estimate, by $1.85 billion. Why? Quite simply, because Walmart’s customers are drawn to the vast selection of cheap products. And by decluttering their aisles, they shoot themselves in the foot since it automatically means less cheap products from which to choose.

2. American Airlines

The customers’ request: For years their passengers complained about the seats being too narrow, rows that are too close together, and non-existent leg room.

You Asked. We Listened: What was American Airlines response? Of course…they listened and redesigned their aircrafts to offer more room, extra leg room, and bigger seats.

The end result: A few months down the road, they had to reverse course, along with other airlines that followed their lead. Their travellers valued cheaper tickets more than this kind of luxury (More space obviously means fewer seats. Since seating capacity on the aircraft was lessened, the ticket prices had to be increased to compensate.

3. The New Coke (Coca-Cola)

The customers’ request: In the early 80s, Coca-Cola’s market share had been steadily declining. The company’s execs decided to do some proper research to find out the main reason for this decline. After spending months doing thousands of in-depth customers surveys, they had their answer…customers seemed to prefer the sweeter taste of Pepsi!

You Asked. We Listened: And yes Coca-Cola listened, after countless sip tests, they introduced the solution! The New Coke…which was much sweeter and smoother than the original formula and was announced on April 23, 1985, as a replacement to its nearly century-old secret formula.

The end result: You already know what happened. It did not go well! After a couple of years, and massive losses, they ended up discontinuing the New Coke* and reintroducing Coke’s original formula branded as “Coca-Cola Classic.”

* In case you were wondering what went wrong, many suggest that the taste was NOT the deciding factor in consumer purchases. In fact, the original Coke had much more symbolic value to customers, who were “emotionally attached” to it.

Thinking of not listening to the customers? STOP

But is that the whole truth?

Well, according to those that are against this school of thought the answer is NO.


Here are 3 reasons to get you started!

Reason #1: You risk spending months building a product that nobody wants

The logic here is quite simple. Unless you’re Justin Bieber with a huge tribe of followers willing to buy whatever you throw at them, completely ignoring your prospective customers is more often than not a recipe for failure!

Yes that’s right, whether you like it or not, the customers are your boss and if they don’t like what you have to offer to them, you’re scre*ed.

So, building on that even if customers are not always right, you’d be better off listening than ignoring them!

Reason #2: He was Steve Jobs and you aren’t

Thinking that you can do it the Jobs way? Chunka Mui suggests to stop daydreaming and get real!

As you read the flood of articles and books celebrating Steve Jobs’ success, just remember: Please don’t try this at home. Like the golfer who hits from the back tees and consistently carries bunkers 280 yards down the fairway, Steve Jobs made most other business leaders look like weekend hackers…But, just as trying to imitate great golfers won’t enable you to hit over those far-away bunkers, mimicking Steve Jobs’ management style won’t transform you into him” – Chunka Mui

Pretty straightforward, isn’t it? Jobs was visionary, unique, and top of his class. You aren’t. At least not yet!

So, get used to the idea that unlike him you won’t get away with just relying on your intuition and kill your ‘inner Steve Jobs’…

Reason #3: “Sheltered product design” simply can NOT work across the board

WTF is this about?

Well, many claim that unless you’re about creating – or at least attempting – a ground-breaking product that will redefine its product category, ignoring customers say simply won’t work.

And the reason why it’s because unlike products that “try to bring the future now” (which can’t rely on customers because they have to think well ahead of their time), most entrepreneurs “don’t play in this arena” and using that formula makes no sense!

The alternative…

So, where does the truth lie?

It lies somewhere in between!

Why do I say that?

Simply, because although history has taught us that “what customers really want and what customers say they want are not always the same thing” they can and should play a role in defining the problem!

That’s correct, in the heart of any successful product, there is a solid customer problem or need.

Let’s say it again – the main driver behind any customers buying decision is nothing other than a problem that needs to get solved.

So, how to find out what keeps people up at night?

Actions Money speaks louder than words!

You read that correctly!

Doing surveys is fun, performing customer development interviews is important, observing customers’ day to day lives and seeing them face that problem in practise is great, but personally, unless I see people spending money on a problem or need, I don’t waste even a millisecond thinking about crafting a product!

But to answer today’s question: Do Customers Know What They Want?

Probably, yes. However, without some serious digging, testing and filtering taking what they say at face value is a recipe for product disaster!

So, please don’t be that guy!

Today’s key takeaways

– Don’t rely on customers build the product for you. That’s YOUR job.

– What customers really want and what customers say they want are not always the same thing.

– You’re not Steve Jobs; get used to it!

– Listen to the customers, but always keep in mind that money speak louder than words.


Ok guys, that’s all from me for today.

I hope to see you soon.



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Thomas Wilson

Thomas Wilson

An accomplished business guru, our CEO holds a degree from Philadelphia's esteemed Fox School of Business, accredited by AACSB. With a knack for practicality, they've orchestrated the launch of diverse small enterprises and guided fellow entrepreneurs in optimizing their ventures. Trust their seasoned insights for invaluable advice tailored to new businesses and LLCs.