Customer is King, But Not Necessarily The Smartest

“Customer is King”, so goes the old adage.

In the marketing world, this expression has almost never gone unchallenged. There are companies who will do anything to know what the customers want, through extensive consumer research and survey. The problem that I had is, a lot of important marketing strategic decisions were let to customers to decide, because, well, they are “King”. Unfortunately, this blind interpretation of “customer is King” often costs companies great innovation opportunities, or great communication ideas. Let me explain this by first proposing a further interpretation of “customer is King”.

Customer is King, but the King is not necessarily the smartest person in the country. There, I said it.

To me customer is King means companies should act in the best interest of the customers. Because that’s how companies retain their customers and keep the business. But it is not the same with treating the King (customers) as the smartest people in the world, or as marketing experts, because they are NOT. That’s why a King does not have to design its own castles, or train his own army, or design its own weapons. He has competent people in their fields to do all that, and eventually, by letting the experts do their job, the King eventually reaps the benefits himself.

Again, let me say it. The King is not the smartest person in the kingdom, and letting him decide on things that are not his expertise may actually harm the king.

I once read that Steve Jobs did not believe in market research. He did not seek customers’ counsel on how the iPhones should look like, or how Mac computers should work. But surely Apple fans would say that Apple products were just greatly designed for them, and how as customers they feel happy using them. For somebody who did not seem to care much about customers, Jobs surely made the customers feel like Kings.

The biggest problem with being too much dependent on the customers is, they are the people who know what is possible now, but they may not know of things that could be. Innovation and imagination is not really democratic. They belong to few great minds, who are probably naturally gifted, or already spent years sharpening their trade. These few innovative minds see what could be, beyond what exist now. Henry Ford, the pioneer of popular, affordable cars for the people, once famously said: “If I had asked the people what they want, they would have said ‘faster horses’.” Vision, imagination, creativity – those things were not handed out by the Gods to everyone.

The other problem with asking your customers too much regarding innovation and ideas is, majority of people are always resistant to new, alien ideas. At least initially. People tend to prefer the familiar, and a breakthrough idea is often initially seen as weird, uncomfortable, unacceptable. Many great ideas that can better everyday lives or even raise the humankind upward die in focus groups or survey because the customers feel uncomfortable with new, novel ideas. When Daniel Craig was initially announced to the public as the next James Bond almost 10 years ago, the public was outraged and resisted him. Because he did not look like the traditional Bonds (especially compared to his predecessor Pierce Brosnan). Even when Casino Royale was out initially, many still resisted him and the idea of a rugged Bond. Fast forward to present time, and Skyfall is often quoted as probably one of the best Bond movies ever. And you barely hear the voices that used to say Craig can not be Bond.

Customer is always King. But there are cases when he just needs to shut up and let the experts do their job. For his own benefit.


Categories: Random Insight

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  1. Interesting post! I agree with the overall assertion that you make, however, there are some points that leave itches that I can’t help to scratch. First, the overall conclusion that you made on letting the “experts” do the job. Albeit anecdotal, we do know that there are many “experts” out there who have no idea on how to do their job. As for the other few, its a bit sad if we leave the job of creating world-changing innovation to the rare hands of the gifted, no?
    What I believe is, what makes (us) an expert is the combination between vision and empathy, and the latter can definitely be nurtured. Which brings me to my next point: to nurture empathy means being able to understand people (not users) who can benefit from your offer. Steve Jobs did not counsel consumers on how IPods should look like, but he has an innate understanding on people’s life context – their pains and aspirations, which is a contributing factor to him being a visionary. He therefore use his vision to translate people’s life context into a need. In that manner, Apple is actually one of the most people-centered companies out there, and this brings me to my final point.
    The biggest problem in consumer research now is not what we do, but how we do it. I agree that (radical) innovation will not emerge by asking people what they want in a product (hence the faster horse argument). But it won’t either by totally discounting people’s story. So screw surveys, FGD, product test, and the rest of those 20th century tools. What experts have to do is to go out there, observe how people live, explore the gap between what they say and what they do, and identify the implicit needs that they can serve through an innovative offer. Do check Tim Brown’s “Change by Design”, as it is a great reference for applying people-centered approach in your organization.
    Consumers are not smart, but they always have a story to tell. It’s up to us to decide which of their stories we want to listen.

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