The Difference Between Customer Preference and Importance

your-customer-may-not-have-an-opinionIt was only four in the afternoon and it had already been a long day. I’d been conducting interviews all day with small groups of people about their preferences for color schemes for the local public transit provider. I still had another five hours to go.

And then a ray of sunshine entered the room.

In disguise.

She was in her mid-20s. Bleach blond hair with colorful streaks of blue, pink, and green. Eyes black with makeup, glaring at the floor. Zipped up puffy jacket despite the warm room.

She was the quiet one in a group of four participants. As we talked through different color palettes and designs, she mostly shrugged, offering only the bare minimum of opinions and only after direct questioning.

It was like pulling teeth.

The group discussion took about an hour, and then I sent my participants on their merry ways. As my reluctant respondent trudged out, I asked her to stay for a minute. Then I said, “You know, some people aren’t all that comfortable in group settings, and some people need a little longer to formulate opinions, and some people just don’t have strong opinions. Since you didn’t have much to say, I’m just curious if you fall into one of those groups.”

Then the sun came out.

She grinned and nodded, then said, “Right. I mean, who gives a f&*% what color the bus is? It’s a bus!”

Beautifully said, whether you agree or not.

That was an important reminder that preference and importance are very different things. It’s easy to get caught up in an “A vs B” debate. I know I’ve found myself in heated discussions on things I didn’t care about, simply because I forgot I didn’t have an opinion.

That doesn’t mean the color of the bus was unimportant. To my client, it was very important. To their agency, equally so. To some of the participants, it mattered a lot (and for some very good reasons, as it turned out). But clearly not everyone cared – and that was fine.

Just a little something to keep in mind the next time you ask your customers for feedback. Make sure they know it’s okay not to have opinions. And if they do have opinions, try to find out why they feel the way they do and how strong their opinions are.

Most of all, don’t assume that what’s important to you is important to them. It’s probably not.

*Photo credit ThinkGeek

1 Comment

  1. Jim Snyder

    Great point!


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