One of the more iconic phrases in customer service is “give ‘em the pickle,” drawn from a story by Bob Farrell regarding an unhappy customer who couldn’t get extra pickles for his hamburger.

The customer actually wrote a letter detailing the frustration he felt in his inability to get said pickles. The phrase stuck thanks to the important lesson Bob learned that day — a little extra effort in service is often all it takes to make for a great experience. The benefits of fulfilling small requests give truth to another popular idiom: that “the customer is (almost) always right.”

But what about feedback and requests that go beyond personal interactions with your company, and deal directly with your product? Should you listen to customers then? Do they understand their problem well enough to propose feasible solutions?

When it comes to a product’s vision, many will tell you: customers are often poor judges of their own needs. You’ll find yourself having to say “No” most of the time, and it’s for a good reason — in regards to building the best solutions, the customer is mostly wrong.

It’s Your Job to Solve the Problem

When listening to feedback, the temptation to follow the customer’s lead is always looming. After all, they know their problem, so they are probably the best person to plot out the solution, right?

Perhaps not. A while back, I outlined Why Steve Jobs Didn’t Listen to His Customers, and what implications that had in regard to internal innovation vs. customer feedback. A mostly tongue-in-cheek headline, it turns out that Jobs and Apple, in reality, didn’t entirely disregard feedback from customers. They were just very selective in how they used it:

Perhaps this is the truth behind Apple's innovation — Steve Jobs did actually listen to customers, but only to find out which problems they faced, and to identify the biggest points of friction they had. He did not listen to customers' proposed solutions because his belief was that the best, most innovative solution had to come from the company.

Customers might help identify the destination, but you can't usually listen to them on how to get there.

Where the customer tends to be consistently “right” is in that ability to point out problems.

In regards to Henry Ford’s supposed observation that people would have asked for “faster horses,” we see where the customer was actually right—identifying the need for quicker transportation.

But you needn’t be disrupting the horse and buggy industry to view feedback the same way. When someone takes time out of their day to contact you, pay attention: their thoughts could shed light on what other customers might be struggling with.

Where paths diverge is in developing with the best, most innovative solution. How do you build the solution of tomorrow around feedback that only consists of the ideas of today?

You can’t. Asking customers what they "want" could identify opportunities in your industry, but it does not necessarily improve or maintain a company's competitive positioning, and following feedback too literally could leave you reacting to problems instead of proactively developing a better solution.

Customer feedback is great for telling you what you did wrong. It's terrible at telling you what you should do next."—Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote

The customer is thus “mostly wrong” because 99% of the time they will suggest faster horses.

This can be misleading: in hindsight, “faster horses” obviously wasn’t the answer, but imagine being bombarded with thousands of similar requests. It is tough to say "No" in the face of such demand, but you have to remember that popularity doesn’t dictate optimal utility.

This is why folks far more experienced in product strategy than I insist that building a great product starts with saying no—even when the suggestion is good (nobody considers bad ideas) and even when many customers ask for it.

Wade Foster describes this as an entrepreneur’s ability to stop chasing problems after their product has found product/market fit:

Once your product has achieved product/market fit (it’s likely well on it’s way when you start getting thousands of feature requests), it’s best to stop chasing problems. There will always be things that other people want your product to do.

Rather than attempting to solve all of them, which will effectively make it impossible to solve any of them, instead focus on any problem that allows the customer to achieve a must-have experience.

This might mean you turn away potentially good customers in the short term, all for the purpose of attracting great customers.

Many would agree that excessive people-pleasing after product/market fit can ruin an initially good product. You have to recognize that most suggestions from customers won't fit your vision. You have to be able to say “No.”

This makes turning customers down a key skill in keeping support standards high, while focusing on building the product people need.

David Bland refers to the impending misery that may occur from doing the opposite as “the Product Death Cycle:”

And yet, saying “No” isn’t always easy. Product people build products because they love solving problems for customers (marketing folks like myself, who focus on customer success, feel the same way).

It’s tough turning people down. We can all use a refresher on how to say “No,” and why it is not the worst thing in the world for a customer to hear.

How to Tell a Customer No

Learning how to say no isn’t just a necessary skill for support, it’s a necessary skill for life. It may take some practice, but here are a few things to keep in mind.

Use “No” to Keep Your Competitive Edge

To be clear, let us not forget that product excellence is often defined by meticulous evaluation and execution on evolving customer requirements. Knowing what customers need is what keeps a great product great, hence the ongoing utility of feedback.

You just have to remember that a company’s competitive edge often comes from avoiding the “sameness trap,” or by solving problems in ways that other companies and customers themselves never considered. Searching for the best outcome often requires many no’s, before you can finally say yes.

Mark Cuban has offered some pretty blunt thoughts on this issue:

"Cuban contends that asking customers what they want doesn’t improve a company’s competitive positioning. Customers make comparisons with existing products and services. They rarely offer insights for conceiving innovative solutions to compromises that everyone reluctantly tolerates."

Which is fine, because it isn’t the customer’s job to innovate. They don’t decide “what comes next,” you do.

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Gregory Ciotti

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is Help Scout's resident content marketer. He also gets nerdy about behavioral psychology at Sparring Mind.