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What is a Customer Phobia?

You’re sitting in a project room working on your next big product. The ideas are flowing; you have this feeling that you’re onto something. For the next few months, it is ‘all-hands on deck’ to get the product out to the market. Your team spends tireless hours planning, building, launching and marketing.

A few months later, the new product hits the market and with nail-biting anticipation, the first sales report arrives in your inbox. As you’re reviewing it, you sense that queasy feeling in your stomach. It’s a flop.

You call the project team together to debrief on the dismal news. A shaky voice from the back of the room sounds off: “Did any of us actually talk to customers?” You quickly brush it off. “Of course! We have tons of quantitative data from surveys and qualitative insights from focus groups and interviews.” And then it dawns on you. Despite having all this data and leading customers through interviews, nobody has actually had a real conversation with a customer. Everything you’ve done to-date was collect the info needed to sell or market your product, but you’ve neglected to collect the info and the process that the customer actually needs to make a decision.

Many companies suffer from a syndrome I call “Customer Phobia”. That is, as we develop great products and services, we go through data points and the customer interviews, but everything we do is in the tone and spirit of confirming our own biases. In reality, we rarely ditch our biases and take the time to really speak with customers to unearth real insights. We bring focus groups into our offices rather then observing them in their natural space. We frame our questions to validate our biases: “Do you shop at our stores?” “What do you like about us?” “Would this product meet your needs?” Quite simply, whenever we get the opportunity to spend time with customers, we go at them with the lens of our own products and services – the classic aspirin looking for a headache. We retrench into our customer phobia, fearing that we may hear something we don’t like.

When customer phobia kicks in, we forget the people aspect and hence miss real insights. We forget and often miss the human meaning and potential impact of our product or service. We miss the bigger picture and the opportunity to understand what type of job the customer is hiring our product to be done.

But are we actually afraid of having those deep customer conversations?

Much of the reasons for customer phobia are actually rooted within our personal comfort zones. We tend to get comfortable with the familiar and our routines, but when we’re introduced to new and interesting things, the glimmer fades so quickly. How many of you feel comfortable in approaching random strangers in a mall and striking up a conversation on what brings them to the mall and how they would go about making decisions? From my experience, this is where anxiety and fear of rejection kicks in. Every time I’ve observed individuals (myself included) trying to strike up random conversations, the anxiety level goes through the roof.

No matter how comfortable you are in your role or what level you are at, this is something that is will throw you for a loop. In today’s modern organizations, many people claim they work directly with customers, but how many people developing products, services or customer programs actually go out and have deep and meaningful conversations with customers? My sense is, not many. Even senior executives who spend the majority of their times with customers often don’t dive deep enough and go into conversations with the intent of selling.

Activities and behaviors in your comfort zone fit a routine and pattern that minimizes stress and risk. It provides a state of mental security, which benefits us through happiness, low anxiety, and reduced stress. At the same time, customer phobia is a barrier to our success. Slowly stepping out of your comfort zone to embrace new experiences will take your ideas outside the four walls of your organizations, gain insight from the folks who will vote with their wallet and help you iterate your product before launching it.

The next time you’ve got a big idea, overcome the phobia and take it outside of the building. The results will speak out loud.

Have you ever encountered “Customer Phobia”? How do you go about getting deeper insight from customers?

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