Listening To Customers Can Be A Recipe For Failure

Steve Jobs once said “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”. And it seems that he might have been right. The recent collapse of online shoe-maker Shoes of Prey highlights the difference between what customers say they will do and their actions. The company’s CEO said the gap between customers’ stated intent and actions was so great that the business made strategic missteps leading to its demise.

In an interview with Smart Company Michael Fox, the Shoes of Prey CEO, said “While our mass market customer told us they wanted to customise …what they were consciously telling us and what they subconsciously wanted … were effectively polar opposites”.

Shoes of Prey was an online show company that allowed people to design their own shoes, fully customising the design and then having their own unique shoes manufactured and shipped. It looked like a sure-fire winner in the era when new technologies like AR/VR and 3D printing allow people to create highly customised products.

But Shoes of Prey discovered, the hard way, that what people say they’ll do and what they actually do can be miles apart.

As company co-founder Jodie Fox said on Instagram:

While all the data and indicators were positive, we were not able to crack mass market adoption.

When I spoke with Mark Bartels from Invoice2Go recently about why businesses fail, he noted the need for a product to scale. And while many businesses focus on the technical side of scaling, they fail to consider the ability for customer desire to scale. I know a handful of people who purchased shoes from Shoes of Prey but they were all tech people who loved the idea.

But in the time I’ve known them, most ordered only one or two pairs from Shoes of Prey, while they bought many more similarly priced shoes from other outlets.

In the article I referred to, the writer notes that people often complete market research activities using the logical part of their brain while their actual decisions are more impulsive. We see this at work when people make quick decisions and then fill in the reasons later rather than deliberating before acting.

And people often respond during market research in a removed way, answering questions as if they were answering for other people – something Jobs understood.

The lesson here is to track metrics carefully and see if your customer activity data meets the intent they expressed. Shoes of Prey had a clear disconnect between what customers told them and what their actions. And building a business around what customers tell them turned out to be its biggest mistake.


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