The core of agile product development is to improve a product iteratively, based on fast customer feedback. However, there are many companies out there, which do not learn from customers (see also “Wasted potentials of agile product development”). The majority of them has an inner claim to involve customers in development, but is not able to do so due to various reasons. For those companies help is readily available.
A totally different quality is reached, when companies do not want to learn from customers at all. But can this actually be allowed in times of agile product development? Can someone dare to make a stand and tell customers: “I know what is good. Period! Take it or leave it!” – and be successful at the same time?
A first thought goes into the direction of monopolies and sellers’ markets, where demand heavily exceeds supply. In these markets companies can go very far with that period!-policy. In such a case, period! can even make complete economic sense. Why should I invest in getting customer feedback for improving my product when people will (must!) come and buy anyway? History, however, tells that such products will disappear sooner or later. Not involving customers because there is no alternative to a product does not work in the long run. At some point the market environment will change and laziness will backfire. One of the more prominent examples is the Trabant, a car that was manufactured in East Germany.
Under different signs though, continuous non-learning from customers can indeed be successful. Prerequisite is that the company is an absolute authority with respect to the product from customer perspective and can define for itself what is good and what is not. To build up such a reputation the company must learn on an extraordinary level – however, not on basis of customer feedback but self-directed. Most often those enterprises follow an extreme quality ethos and are continuously in a deep PDCA-cycle to improve the product. They are on a level of self-conception where customer feedback has no room anymore, since it cannot contribute to the crusade for optimal results. The company is the best possible customer itself and defines what to produce. Often these ventures can be found in traditional areas of craftsmanship producing goods for rather basic needs with constant demand like cheese, ham, wine, shoes or tools.
Such companies put their own ideals and visions before the needs of potential customers, which are often degenerated and standardized by the influence of other enterprises and trends. It either fits – or it doesn’t. The price for such a total self-fulfillment is a pin pointed niche market defined by the company itself and at the cost of tighter economic boundaries and potentially missing growth potentials. As a result, such companies are not less customer-centric than others. The few customers served are often very well acquainted and the relationship is characterized by a deep mutual trust, which forms the basis for a distinct service design.
I think that all of us know a company as described before. One of my personal favorites is a butcher (or, more appropriate: a butcher-boutique) called Hatecke from Switzerland. Also often cited in this contest is the biography of Yvon Chouinard, founder of the outdoor-specialist Patagonia. The basis for his business was to sell pitons, which he developed and produced based on his very own quality and functional criteria (see „Let my people go surfing“)
So, what can we learn from those feedback deniers? Agile product development is no dogma! Really big innovative product developments almost always had at least a short-term period where a consequent orientation to customer feedback would have been detrimental. Methods need to follow the vision and should be critically adjusted in the very different phases of product development and maturity.