Craggy Peak Research
Driving empathovation.

Don't chase the outliers and lose sight of the silent majority

Todd Haskell | December 2, 2020

We have two carbon monoxide detectors in our house. Recently, one of them started making a persistent beeping, and a guide on the back of the detector informed us that it was an "end of life" notification. So, we were suddenly in the market for a new carbon monoxide detector. The units we had were installed by the previous owners, so we didn't pick them ourselves. But the path of least resistance was just replace it with a new version of the same thing.

Part of the appeal of going with a direct replacement had to do with mounting the new detector once we got it. The old detector was held on the wall with two screws. The ideal thing would be to reuse those same two screws, without having to drill a new hole in the wall. When I went to order the new detector, I did notice that the new version looked slightly different than what I had, even though it was the exact same model. I was able to view an image of the back of the detector, and it looked like the screw holes were in about the same place. However, I couldn't find any information about the spacing between the two holes. It wasn't even in the installation instructions. I shrugged, figuring that same model would mean same spacing, and went ahead and placed my order.

You know where this is going. The new detector arrived, and when I went to mount it, I discovered that the spacing of the screw holes was not the same. I had to go dig up my drill, measure the space, and drill a new hole, all the while grumbling about it.

So, did the manufacturer find out about my dissatisfaction? Absolutely not. Remember, I was interested in the path of least resistance. Calling customer service, posting a review, or any other way of making my opinion known would have been pointless for purposes of achieving my goal, which was to get a functioning carbon monoxide detector up on the wall. The quickest and easiest thing for me to do was just drill the new hole and move on with my life, so that's what I did.

Now, there are certainly other people who would have made their opinion known. And the manufacturer definitely should pay attention to those opinions. These days, a disgruntled customer who doesn't feel heard can use the web to do some significant damage to your brand. Furthermore, there's a good chance that whatever is bugging that vocal customer is also bugging people like me. If the company does something to address the issue with screw spacing, for example, it will reduce frustration just as effectively for those customers who are unlikely to complain as for those who do.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to view the small number of vocal customers as representative of your entire customer base. If you only focus on addressing their concerns, you may end up neglecting the concerns of a potentially much larger group of customers who isn't posting angry reviews. In other words, you end up directing your time, energy, and resources toward where the most noise is, rather than where the most need is.

This is why I think it's always much more valuable to get feedback from customers proactively rather than reactively. If you discover an issue like the one I had with the carbon monoxide detector because a customer complains in an on-line forum, that's much too late. At that point you're stuck with putting a band-aid on the problem. The issue with the screw spacing should have been caught at the design stage, when the product team was making changes to the existing model.

The ideal thing, in my view, is if the company had done some research up-front on the customer experience with selecting, purchasing, and installing a carbon monoxide detector or smoke alarm. It doesn't matter if it's their own customers or not - just that they are part of the target market. Do a focus group or interviews, and probe for any parts of the process where there was friction or a pain point. I am almost certain that differences in how different detectors are mounted would have come up.

Then, charge the product team with ensuring that these pain points are never experienced by your customers. When you're doing a product redesign, go through each change and check it against your list of pain points, to make sure you aren't inadvertently causing a predictable frustration. If a change may cause frustration but can't be avoided, take proactive steps to minimize that frustration. For example, on product packaging and product descriptions on the web, prominently present information on how the product is mounted, so the customer is aware of potential installation issues in advance. Even if I knew that the spacing of the screw holes had changed, I may have still bought the same detector. After all, it would have taken extra time and effort to try to find another option with the exact right spacing, and such a product might not even exist. If I did buy the same detector, the need to drill a new hole would have been factored in as part of my purchase decision, and I wouldn't have had a negative reaction to it when the product arrived.

Naturally, doing this kind of customer research costs money. Companies are reluctant to do it if they can't quantify the ROI and point to the impact on their KPIs. To which I would respond, sometimes you incur costs that you don't even know about because you aren't looking in the right place to see them. To make that concrete, a couple days ago the second carbon monoxide detector in my house started beeping. End of life again (makes sense, they were probably installed at the same time). So I was again in the market for a replacement detector. But this time, I bought a different brand. The company doesn't realize that they lost a sale, doesn't know why that happened, and doesn't know how to fix the problem. If you think customer research is expensive, what's the cost of that?