Saying “No” To Customers Can Save Your Company Ross Kimbarovsky | February 15th, 2011

Many entrepreneurs and small business owners argue that you should always listen to your customers. In fact, the popular lean startup principles advocate listening to your customers and iterating early and often.

But listening to customers – and responding to your customers’ suggestions by implementing all or many of them – are not the same thing. As Steve Jobs wisely said:

Innovation is not about saying yes to everything. It’s about saying NO to all but the most crucial features.

Unfortunately, many businesses fail because their leaders lose focus while trying to incorporate all (or many) of their customers’ suggestions. It’s easy to fall prey to the “yes’ mentality. Saying yes makes us happy. We believe that saying yes is more likely to cause the customer to buy our product or service. Saying yes makes our customers happy.

Ultimately, don’t we want happy customers?

Of course we do. But making customers temporarily happy while destroying your company is, in my opinion, an unacceptable cost. No company has unlimited resources and when you say yes to customers  – you’re committing – and often, over-committing – those resources.

If you’re creating software, you end up with bloated software and a terrible user experience. If you’re creating products, you end up with a complex and expensive product.

Henry Ford famously said:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.

Many people reading Henry Ford’s quote conclude that innovation is driven by your own ideas – and not by ideas suggested by your customers. After all, how could people who use horses and buggies come up with the idea for a horseless “car”?

The reality is that listening and innovation go hand in hand. Steve Jobs was only partially right. You shouldn’t say yes to everything. But you also shouldn’t ignore what your customers say. The key is in how you listen – and what you do after you understand what your customers are saying.

Part of the answer lies in asking good questions. The quality of answers to your questions depend on the quality of your questions. Ask stupid questions and you’ll get stupid answers. Ask broad questions and you’ll get broad answers.

Moreover, how well you listen is measured not merely by your ability to hear WHAT the customer is suggesting – but also by your ability to understand your customer’s point of view. If enough customers tell you that there’s something wrong with your product, then there probably is something wrong. That doesn’t mean you should change the product at the whim of your customers – but it does mean that you should understand WHY your customers are having trouble with your product and deal with the underlying issues causing problems for customers.

More often than not, you’ll end up saying no to dozens, hundreds, and often thousands of suggestions from your customers. If you don’t – you’ll go out of business.

But how can you say “no” to a customer without discouraging them?

The team at crowdSPRING has answered well over 100,000 customer service tickets. We’re very fortunate to have an active and engaged community of customers who have many ideas for how we can improve crowdSPRING.

Ultimately, the best strategy boils down to this: set expectations so that the customer understands clearly what you think about their suggestion. Here’s what we do when a customer suggests a new feature or improvement to an existing feature on crowdSPRING.:

1. Thank the customer for their suggestion and make it clear in our answer that we understand their suggestion (it helps to use the customer’s own words to communicate that understanding). This is even more important when you’re dealing with a “difficult” customer.

2. If we don’t intend to add the feature or make the change suggested by the customer, we make that very clear. We never want to mislead our customers and imply that we’ll pursue their idea when in reality, we will not do so. Often, we’ll include a few sentences explaining WHY we won’t pursue their suggestion. We also want to be very clear that we’re rejecting the suggestion – not the customer. We’ll tell customers that many of our best innovations are driven by suggestions from customers and invite further suggestions if they see other areas where we could improve.

3. If the customer’s idea sounds interesting and one that we might discuss with our team (we hold a weekly all-team meeting where we discuss all customer suggestions that make this cut), we often ask for more details and make it clear that while we won’t guarantee that we’ll implement their suggestion, we truly value the fact that they took the time to write to us and want to better understand that suggestion. Here, listening is important because often, customers ask for solutions that treat the symptoms of their problem, not the root causes. We always want to improve the root so that we can treat the problem itself and eliminate it for all customers. When customers talk about the symptoms of their problem, we have an opportunity to listen to better understand how we must solve the root causes.

It’s not easy to say no. But it’s necessary if you want to stay in business.

Do you agree that it’s important to say “no” to customers?

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  • we started a suggestion box and it just turned into a “give me this, now” box… then, when we had to start saying ‘no’ everyone, we turned into the ‘bad guys’ I agree, it’s important to say “no” to customers and employees most of the time.

  • Mercedes Landazuri

    This reminds me of the Dream Cafe episode of Seinfeld. Perfect example of when a business owner shouldn’t follow a customer’s suggestion.

  • I have no problem saying no, I will always have more visitors and customers. The ones that are difficult and hard to deal with will eventually go away and bother someone else. That is not to say we do not deal with obvious problems. But I get some real duzies through the contact form on my Site. Usually country un-known!

  • This is the most amazing article for a budding entrepreneur to read – how true is Henry Ford’s comment! The point is not to listen to what other people want, but to truly believe in something that you yourself want. Look at Facebook – it’s something the twins wanted so that they could pick up girls. Now the whole world uses it, and half of them for pretty much that same reason. As long as you truly believe that what you are creating is useful to you, it’s going to be just as useful to other people too. My blog post makes the same point – I’d love to see your comments

    Ivan Mazour

  • Adam — I am curious whether you kept that suggestion box or took it away. If the latter, how did you explain this to your employees and what was their reaction?

  • Ivan – I enjoyed your post. I bet there are many things we’d love to share with our teenage selves!

  • We get some weird customer notes too (and I’ve written about some, including the one time someone opened with “hello whores”).

  • For a show about nothing, Seinfeld sure had many lessons to share about many things…

  • Maryjosephine

    You are aware that Henry Ford never actually said that, right?

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