Should Microsoft listen to its customers?

That should be a no-brainer, eh? Well it didn’t seem to be the way for quite a time. It’s great now to see from the latest post in the IEBlog, the Microsoft Internet Explorer Weblog, that they are now very actively Listening to Customers. It must obviously be better.

However another item crossed my desk yesterday too. It dates back a little while but it’s called Why great companies fail. It’s based on Clayton M. Christensen‘s seminal theory on disruptive technology that he developed from watching Digital Equipment’s fall in 1988.
He defines a sustaining technology as any innovation that enables an industry’s leaders to do something better for their existing best customers. A disruptive technology, on the other hand, is a product or service that your best customers can’t use and that has substantially lower profit margins than your business can support. Companies ignore disruptive technology innovations for perfectly rational reasons, but to their ultimate peril.
Building on that thought, there’s a huge population of folk out there who vigorously avoid Microsoft technology. They’re vocal and they encourage all who wish to listen to seek other technology. That’s why Firefox has had such an explosive growth. It may be why MSN Search will have a fight on its hands to wrest a significant share of the search engine market away from Google.

So if Microsoft wants to be sure to spot its own disruptive technology, it should listen particularly to these passionate non-customers. It’s like talking to a customer you’ve just lost. Or talking to an employee who left you to join another outfit. You’re more likely to hear an unpalatable truth from such sources. Customers may be too affected by that ‘cognitive dissonance theory’. When you’ve bought and are using some product, it’s not easy to say something that proves you made a mistake. So you tend to be too polite, unless it’s really gone very, very wrong.

So Microsoft, it’s great to hear you’re listening to customers. However why not try to have some of those difficult conversations with the people who probably don’t want to talk to you. There may be gold in them thar hills.

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