Late last year, Mark Cuban (self-made billionaire and owner of the Dallas Mavericks) wrote that entrepreneurs should ignore what their customers want. This may sound shocking, but it's nothing new. In fact, it's practically common knowledge for start-up companies; many entrepreneurs (including Steve Jobs) consider it one of the "best practices" of developing a product.

In Cuban's words, "Entrepreneurs need to be reminded that it's not the job of their customers to know what they don't. In other words, your customers have a tough enough time doing their jobs. They don't spend time trying to reinvent their industries or how their jobs are performed." While it's important to stay in touch with a customer base, we shouldn't ask customers to solve a problem that they expect us to solve. This scenario can be called the "Doctor's Dilemma." Many startups would benefit from tackling their product feedback with the Doctor's Dilemma in mind.

Guest Author Max Ogles is a user engagement specialist for the startup company Change Anything. You can follow him on Twitter at @mgogles.

The Doctor's Dilemma

A patient walks into the doctor's office and says, "I think I have tuberculosis. I looked it up on the Internet." So what are the doctor's options for treatment?

He could:

  1. Stop everything and treat the patient with drugs to cure tuberculosis.
  2. Have no conversation with the patient but do a full physical exam, then offer treatment for any symptoms that turn up as a result of the exam.
  3. Do a physical exam, ask a few questions about where the pain discomfort is, what it feels like etc., then prescribe a solution based on his diagnosis.

The solution lies in the way the doctor balances his own intuition and experience with the claims of the patient.

The Startup Doctor

Of course, the entrepreneur (or startup company) is the doctor. As entrepreneurs, we solve pain. The best entrepreneurs solve a lot of pain for a lot of people. Often a customer doesn't even realize the pain until being introduced to a product or company, but it's pain nonetheless. Now, if entrepreneurs think of themselves as doctors, it's easy to determine exactly how to solicit feedback from a customer. Would a competent, trustworthy doctor prescribe medication based solely on the diagnosis of a patient?

No way. If a patient had real confidence in his own Google-search diagnosis, he would never visit the doctor in the first place.

People visit the doctor because they have a problem that they don't know how to solve. And the same goes for a startup company. It's your job to innovate and solve the customer's pain.

Some companies choose to do extensive research - from click-through rates to A/B testing - and accumulate all the necessary stats to measure "user engagement." This is useful and, like option No. 2 in the Doctor's Dilemma, can lead to a successful diagnosis. However, there's no question that option No. 3, a thorough analysis combined with specific patient feedback, will ultimately lead to the best results.

Optimizing Feedback

While we shouldn't depend on customers to create or innovate, we should count on them to validate. After pinpointing a diagnosis and prescribing treatment, the doctor can only wait and see what happens. In fact, the doctor may not even know whether a treatment is working, without a validation from the patient. "Is your pain gone?" proves to be a simple, yet very effective question to determine next steps.

An entrepreneur, like a doctor, should observe how the customer interacts and reacts to the product or service that is designed to "treat" the customer's pain. Rather than asking, "What do you think this product needs?" a startup should ask, "How are people using our product and what is the result of them using it?"

Trust your own expertise as a "doctor of innovation" and you'll be much more successful than if you rely on customers to solve their own problems.

- Max Ogles

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.