As I’ve been traveling around the country to deliver talks on the Creative Good message of “customers included” (hi to my friends in SF, Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis, and here in NYC!), I keep hearing a question that goes something like this: What if we are our own customer – do we still need to go outside for customer feedback?

In other words, if the people who work here are users of the service, or buyers of the product themselves, why take extra time to sit down with people outside the company? After all, it’s faster and cheaper to get feedback on the customer experience from coworkers who sit within the range of a “hey, d’you have a sec to take a look at this wireframe?”

While I’m a firm believer that any honest observation of the experience – even that of coworkers – is better than nothing, I don’t think it goes quite far enough. Any experienced practitioner can tick off the problems: research of users inside the company can be subject to (a) internal politics, (b) tunnelvision from having been immersed in the product for so long, and (c) a lack of objectivity and “fresh eyes” to find out what ordinary users are going through.

None of this should be a surprise. What’s more interesting, I think, is to consider why some teams would rather not go outside to observe customers. Usually it springs from the difficult truth that customers bring the bad news. If you really open up research, and let customers show their unvarnished reaction to the real, authentic customer experience they’re having, it’s often not pleasant to watch. It can be dangerous to let bad news loose inside a company. This is why I say (and recently tweeted):

Before you get customers involved, first you should probably check if the boss can handle bad news.

Some leaders simply don’t want to hear bad news. I recall a middle manager at a past client who asked us, rather nervously, if we could make a change to our preparation for the upcoming listening labs: would we mind writing down and submitting for approval every question we planned to ask the customers? This way, he said, he could be sure that customers weren’t given the opportunity to say something that could be uncomfortable to the executives observing the labs. (!!)

If you want to include customers, you have to be ready to hear bad news. The best, most customer-inclusive organizations not only acknowledge and accept bad news, they actively seek it out. As pointed out in Customers Included, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger ask their direct reports to give them the bad news first. “It’s the good news that can wait.”

So next time you think of including the customer, set this expectation on the team: First, the bad news.

  1. You are so right about the boss being able to take bad news. If you don’t have executive buy-in for User Centered Design then it’s hard to create a good experience.

    In my work, I’ve seen a lot of lip service around usability & UCD but not a lot of actual user centeredness.

    I was just on a massive federal contract, where UCD was critical, and the executives didn’t get UCD. So now I’m trying to talk about listening to customers (end users) as *empowering* to business people. That it will empower and enable the boss and ultimately make the project a success.

    Great post. HOW do you convince people to listen to bad news?

  2. I think what also makes it hard for companies to receive bad news because on paper, no one wants to see anything negative. As long as the percentage of negative feedback is relatively small most companies have been able to overlook this data until transparency became a buzzword.

    I applaud companies for dealing with the bad news first. As a business owner, I don’t like seeing the bad news either, even though I know it’s an opportunity to become better. But I know the faster I respond the better the outcome.

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