Brands shouldn’t ask customers what they want.

One of the worst things I can do is ask my wife what she wants – whether it’s an innocuous question about what we should have for dinner or a request for a hint as to what she might consider a good Christmas present. I have been, repeatedly, told that if I had paid better attention to her I’d know exactly what she wants.

Customers think like my wife. Few are willing to answer street questionnaires, take calls at home; fill online questionnaires or participate in focus groups – unless they are paid.

And yet, companies keep insisting. They rather ask than listen. If companies really cared about the customers they should know what they want!

Everyday, all day long, customers are expressing what they want and what they’d like to have improved. All it takes is listening and observation: see how happy the customer is by the time they get to the front of the queue to pay; how much time they spend with the product; how wide they smile then consuming it.

Social media (social networks, blogs, et al.) provides ample opportunities for companies to listen to what customers are saying about their products and services; uninhibited and unaffected by facilitators and stimulus material.

A friend of mine at a leading consumer goods company told me that a sweeping review of blogs, forums and notice boards led to the surprising knowledge that one of their soap bars was used for onanistic practices. My friend dismissed it as an indication of the folly of a few. To make a point I pushed back and suggested they should have launched a bar specially designed for these people’s interests. I argued that, of all the product extensions the consumer goods company had launched over the years, this was one which, at least, had a proven market.

On a similar note, Coke famously chose not to listen to customers, over the summer, as a wave of videos showing Diet Coke bottles spouting geysers when mixed with Mentos began to appear on YouTube (today there are over 6,040 videos with the top 25 having registered over 15.5 million views) and other video sharing sites. At the peak of the craze, Coke’s response was to say “we want people to drink our soda, not play with it.” Mentos on the other hand, embraced it. Belatedly, in October, Coke commissioned the EepyBird Guys, the producers of the most spectacular Coke/Mentos videos, and announced a competition. Alas, they have only attracted 5 entries so far. Read B.L. Ochman’s blog for an analyses of this fiasco.

Listen, participate.