Being something of a petrol head, I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with the latest version of the infamous MINI hatchback. I have to tell you that my wife and I are massive MINI fans. We have had three different modern MINI models in the last 10 years and we have loved every single one of them. True, they are impractical, noisy, uncomfortable and ultimately a bit conspicuous. But at the same time, they are extremely good fun to drive, infinitely customisable, well made, full of character and utterly lovable.
So it was something of a surprise to find that I absolutely hated the new version. Being a hard-core MINI fan, you would think I would lap up BMW’s latest offering as though it were manna from heaven. I didn’t.
You see, they fundamentally changed the car. And the reason they changed the car so dramatically was that they listened to their customers.
This may sound counterintuitive, but listening to what your customers tell you is fundamentally a bad idea. Let me explain.
Asking The Customer What They Want = Trouble
When they set out to develop the latest generation of MINI, BMW conducted aggressive market research and customer clinics. They asked customers what they didn’t like about the existing MINI model. Customers came back with plenty of criticisms. The hard suspension, the levels of noise inside the car, the lack of rear space, the lack of boot space, the poor position of some of the switchgear, the centre speedo being slightly pointless, build quality criticisms. The list went on and on.
Now you may assume from this plethora of problems that customers absolutely hated the car. And yet they didn’t. They completely and utterly adored it as if it were a member of the family. The level of loyalty to the MINI brand was astounding. So why were customers reporting all of these problems? Problems that were inherent to the design of the car?
Well, they were just answering the question BMW posed! If you ask somebody what they don’t like about a particular product they will often tell you and they may even come up with a considerable list not dissimilar in length to the one these MINI customers came up with. This however, does not necessarily mean that they dislike the product on the whole.
So, with this laundry list of customer criticisms, BMW set about changing the car to ensure that all of these faults were addressed. This was about as intelligent as attempting to climb the West Pier ruins in Brighton during a force 10 gale. The end result of this obsessive tinkering was a larger car with many of the original unconventional elements that made MINI’s so distinctive taken away and replaced with conventional designs. The unique toggle switch controls on the centre stack for the windows were replaced with ordinary buttons on the doors. The retro central speedo was removed and placed above the steering wheel – a conventional position. The funky fluted leather seats were discarded in favour of larger, less quirky BMW items. The car was made several inches wider and considerably longer in an attempt to create interior space. The suspension was softened to create comfort, at the expense of driving enjoyment. The steering was made lighter, losing the go-kart feel that many owners loved about the previous models.
The new car IS more comfortable, more spacious, quieter and more refined. It has a more logical interior layout. It’s easier to use. It incorporates the latest in gimmicks, sorry, “modern technologies”. It feels and drives like a small BMW. And many of the core customer base, me included, hate the thing.
What BMW failed to understand here, as many other companies also fail to do, was the “give a shit factor”.
The “Give A Shit Factor”
The give a shit factor comes down to one thing. How much do customers really care about the things they criticise? You see, although customers in BMW’s clinics had plenty of criticisms about the MINI, their level of dissatisfaction with these things was relatively low. In short, they weren’t that bothered. In fact in many cases it could be argued that customers actually felt that these things were part of what gave the car the character they so loved. In taking them away and sanitising the product, BMW destroyed the character that made people so loyal to the brand in the first place.
Now at this point you might be thinking what’s the complaint here? BMW asked the customers what they wanted – they listened and made relevant changes. Is that not what we should be doing? Listening to the customer?
The point I want to make is that there is more to satisfying customers needs than just listening to what they say. The difference is understanding their needs. This is significantly more sophisticated.
Customers Don’t Know What They Want
The problem is the customers are rarely able to clearly articulate their needs. If you ask them specific questions, you’ll get specific answers. While this may work in some situations, it is not wholly reliable. Most of the time they tell you what they THINK they want, not what they actually need.
The reason is they don’t understand what they need. Understanding their needs and providing the product or service to meet them is your job, not theirs.
A famous example that demonstrates this is the iPad. If you had asked people in 2010 what they wanted in the device of the future, they would not have described the iPad. In fact when the iPad was launched, Apple came in for significant criticism – “a big iPod Touch”, “no USB drive”, “where’s the keyboard” etc, and yet this device completely changed the entire landscape of computing as we knew it then, leading to the proliferation of tablets and other mobile devices we see today. What made a difference with the iPad was Apple’s inherent understanding of people’s needs. They listened to what people asked for but looked into what they said rather than taking it at face value. This allowed them to anticipate features and design ideas that would give people the results they wanted.
If Apple had listened to what customers said in 2010, they’d have developed something akin to a stylus driven MacBook with the keyboard sliced off. And nobody would have bought the thing.
Looking Into Your Customers
Do you understand your customer’s needs? Can you see further than them, anticipating their requirements and providing the solutions that deliver what they need? Do you understand what they give a shit about and what is really not that relevant to them?
Understanding your customer is about much more than market research and customer clinics. It’s about what they don’t tell you. It’s about the hidden information that holds the secret to unlocking the best solution for them. You can deduce this by looking into them – thinking about what might enhance their life, make things easier, surprise and delight them. To do this you need to 1. gain understanding through insight and 2. care.
Don’t listen to your customers. Look INTO them.
Remember, your job is to anticipate the future and bring it to the customer. That’s what they’re paying you for.
Don’t ask them – they don’t know!
P.S. Don’t let me put you off the MINI – it’s still an excellent car, it’s just… different.
Managing Director, Franklin-Hackett Ltd.