the ceo magazine, customer focus,

In September 2017, Ikea, the Swedish home goods retailer, gave their customers what they wanted when they acquired TaskRabbit, a company that sends tool-wielding workers to rescue customers from the frustration of build-it-yourself furniture kits. TaskRabbit continues to operate independently of the acquiring company, using online marketing to connect 60,000 freelance “taskers” with people who need help, thereby making Ikea’s customers’ lives easier.

Many organizations fail to do what Ikea did, however. Instead of seeking or heeding the voice of the customer, they develop a strategy and plan based on what they think the customer wants. My best clients do better. They develop systematic approaches for really hearing what their customers expect of them, and they continually ask the following: 

  • If we stopped doing what we’re doing, to whom would it matter?
  • Who would miss us most?
  • What are we doing that our best customers want us to stop doing? 
  • How long would it take another organization to step into the void?

Another way to consider the voice of the customer is to identify your unique contribution to the industry. To consider the world with your organization versus without it, determine where the intersection of your distinction, excellence, and profitability is. This difference defines your unique added value—what would be lost to the world if your organization disappeared. 

As strong as the Coca-Cola Co. has been for decades, they don’t always listen to their customers. In 1985, leaders at Coke attempted to replace its flagship cola with “New Coke,” which involved changing the recipe. Customers revolted, so the campaign foundered. In 2011 the Coca-Cola Co. made plans to switch back to its time-honored red can just one month after rolling out the snow-white animal can the company introduced for the holidays.

Coke decided to partner with the World Wildlife Fund to highlight global warming’s threat to some bears’ Arctic habitat. Leaders at Coke said they would contribute up to $3M to the conservation efforts. Customers didn’t object, but neither did they seem too impressed. The company didn’t lose customer loyalty with this initiative, but did they reap the rewards of good will they had hoped for? I doubt it, but I also wonder what opportunities the company overlooked while concentrating on an effort that no customer requested.

Coke should have learned its lesson by now. People appreciate the new formulas for Diet Coke, Coke Zero, and all other kinds of offerings. But each and every time the Coca-Cola Co. has monkeyed with its classic Coke and the can it comes in, bad things have happened.

Starbucks has no trouble giving their customers what they want—at least not usually. But they do invite ire occasionally when they attempt to use their cups to take a stand on social issues. For instance, in 2015, the company encouraged baristas to write “Race Together” on cups and to engage customers in conversations about race. This ill-conceived initiative seemed tone-deaf. Did they forget that many of us don’t want to have a conversation with anyone, much less strangers, until after we’ve had copious amounts of coffee? And even then, most of us don’t want to discuss sensitive issues with people we don’t know.

Nearly every year Starbucks introduces a Christmas cup that seems to annoy some people. They tried putting non-religious Christmas pictures on the cup, but that caused some to accuse them of waging a “war on Christmas.” In 2017 they put people holding hands on the holiday cup, but this prompted accusation that they were promoting a “gay agenda.” Every year and every version of the holiday cups engenders some sort of backlash, so why do they keep doing it?

Well-intended though executives at Coke and Starbucks seem to be, when they make these kinds of changes, they break the cardinal rule about customers. Instead of asking what customers wanted or needed, they forged ahead with what they preferred.

Of course, anyone could make the case that both Coke and Starbucks remain solid companies despite taking their eyes off the customer, but don’t you wonder what they might be if they gave customers what they wanted more often? 



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