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Mark Little Headshot

Don't Research What Your Customers Want - Experiment

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The customer is king: it's the first rule of business, but one too many have allowed themselves to forget. As the recent struggles of tech giants from Nokia to HP have shown, the age of big businesses surviving based on brand and breadth alone is well and truly over.

Fail to take the customer with you and no end of research, focus-grouped analysis and product development will save you from the judgment of the market.

Ideas, models and products, which seem perfect in the lab, can so easily have flaws exposed by the rigour of everyday usage. The answer to this is not to wrap the product in development cotton wool, but rather to expose it to the toughest testing ground of all - real customers.

This is a model Eric Ries identified with his Lean Startup methodology. Ries found that many tech start-ups expend vast amounts of time and money perfecting their products for market; but what they don't invest in is a proper channel of communication with the public they are aiming to supply.

With the Lean Startup model, Ries has shown that these start-ups need to take a fully collaborative approach to doing business. Central to this is getting a new product into the hands of consumers at a stage when they can have a tangible impact on how it is tailored and developed for the wider market.

More than that, it's about the culture of the company, and we took a lot of pride in the description of Intuit last year as the "30 year-old startup". This reflected our desire to match the ambition, energy and enthusiasm that characterize the entrepreneur with the scope of an international corporate operation.

It's a simple, but fundamental notion. The businesses that succeed are those who embrace customer experience as genuinely important, rather than as an obstacle to be overcome. Embracing the entrepreneurial mindset, even as an established business, is a key to understanding what the customer really wants.

Businesses that think of themselves as being on trial in the court of public opinion are less likely to succeed than those which actively seek to understand how customers respond to their products and services. Companies need to test their products in real market conditions to observe how consumers react and to help them adapt accordingly. This continual cycle of build-measure-learn helps a company create a product that customers want and that ultimately, they will pay for.

In the digital age, it's easier than ever before for people to take to Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr and let the world know they think you've got it wrong. And that will be the fate of businesses that wait until their product has launched to get consumer feedback, rather than testing hypotheses with real customers in the development phase.

The Lean Startup mentality is as relevant for corporates as it is entrepreneurial businesses, and something we've taken very much to heart at Intuit. As Ries wrote in his book, The Lean Startup, Intuit is "proof that this kind of thinking can work in established companies."

A business that embraces rather than fears what people think is, quite simply, a better business - and not just in how it develops products. Putting the customer first is an ethos that has a beneficial change on the entire culture of a company. Accountability to the customer rather than the boardroom should be the ultimate goal.

Take how we've been working on the development of our new mobile payment solution, Intuit Pay. It's due for general availability in the spring, but we've been operating a pilot scheme with small business owners since November.

We've run the pilot in real market conditions, testing customers' response to everything from pricing to the sign-up experience and user interface, as well as observing customers in their place of business. This has meant we've been able to learn fast and base decisions on the real life experience of exactly the professional market we are developing the product for.

In a short space of time we have been rapidly iterate the offering and are confident that the final product will delight customers. It's the Lean Startup mentality in action - basing business decisions and product development on data, rather than surveys or corporate assumptions.

There was never a good excuse for corporations to think they knew better when it came to products and services. Now, companies that fail to put the customer front and centre will have their diffidence punished by the market.

The big business winners of the next decade will be those that innovate with the speed and ambition of a start-up. Those that think and act entrepreneurially, and remember its only customers that know what they want.