Companies often talk about becoming more customer-focused and wanting more customer input on products and services. It's hard to argue that that's bad.
Obviously, the quicker you can turn your customers' desires into action, the better you'll do in the marketplace. But a real problem in the car business is the long gestation period from conception to birth. If you thought the elephant had it tough, just look at how long it takes to get a car or truck from idea to showroom.
And despite all the bragging, it really takes longer than any car company wants to admit. Lots of companies throw around numbers like two years or 30 months. Well, if you want to get everything done that quickly, you're using an existing structure and drivetrain. Otherwise it just takes a lot longer.
When the product is going to be introduced four or five years from now, how important are customer opinions today? The information that you pick up in consumer research may harm you as much as help you make the right decisions.
Bob Lutz, Chrysler's outgoing vice chairman, had it right when he described focus groups as a snapshot of a moving target. That's why the astute product planner is cherished so much in the automobile industry. You have to be able to foresee trends and predict tastes many years out. What's in vogue today might eventually be as appealing as yesterday's mashed potatoes.
I worry about any company that uses focus groups as a real indicator of customers' desires. The more you follow focus groups, the more the product will become vanilla. When you eliminate the aspects of a product that some folks don't like, you start to kill the personality.
Certainly, there are great examples of products that didn't get a clinic and that bombed in the marketplace. And there are even more successes under the same circumstances. It depends on the skills of the people in charge. Those skills are impossible to quantify and should probably be considered an art, not a science.
The longer the pipeline from the customer, the less valuable a focus group will be. And there is a real danger that focus groups will eliminate the good with the bad. Rather than their specific likes and dislikes, marketers get more value in learning the direction that customers are moving. Otherwise, you're going to end up with some pretty dull products, which we see all the time.