Listening (or not). Image via Dyanna on flickr

I’m a huge fan of The Apprentice. (Don’t know if you get this outside the UK – reality TV show about would-be entrepreneurs, working on new money-making ‘tasks’ every week)

The Apprentice is highly instructive on many levels, but I’m particularly enthralled by the candidates’ approach to customer research. Every week, the candidates will usually talk to a small group of potential customers about their ideas. And each week I watch, slack-jawed, as the candidates utterly fail to listen to the customers. Ever.

People struggle with feedback

In the case of Apprentice candidates, they are so taken with their insane ideas that they seem incapable of absorbing any information that might result in a slight adjustment to their thinking.

‘Sure, they say it will never work but we can be the first to make it work!’ (‘Everydog: The one dog food for every dog!’)

Failing that, they just rubbish the research itself.

(On the men who hated their men’s magazine idea) “What we need to bear in mind is that our focus group was quite focused.”
(On the concept of Biscuits: The New Popcorn?) ‘What do 10 people in Cardiff really know anyway?’

(I’ve seen that one a lot)

Listening is hard.

Really, really hard.

Especially when all your hopes are pinned on one outcome.

How do you start to listen, when you’re so fearful of a negative response?

Untangle your ego from the process.

It needs a certain confidence to hold back from rushing to the answer, opening up the possibility of a different response.  Hearing the message and treating it properly.  Exploring the reaction and what drives it.

It is the hardest thing in the world to expose your precious ideas to scrutiny, and yet it has to be done.

We didn’t explain it properly.
The prop didn’t really give the flavour of the real thing.
They’re not really our target market.
Apparently Apple don’t do any research, and they’re the market leader.
People never respond well to innovative products.

All of these things have a degree of truth to them, and yet they’re not the whole of the matter.

You need to stop and listen, beyond the rabble of voices, the industry magazines and the Powerpoint analysis.  It’s not about blind reaction, it’s about thinking and sorting through the insights.  Listening creatively. And knowing your product. Placing your own strong emotions to one side.

Put some clear space around your idea.

Where is your idea, at its best? What are the strengths that could make it soar?  What are potential customers saying about it?  Do they care what it solves, how it’s used, when it’s delivered, whether it comes in blue, or whether they could really love it? How does it make people feel?

The clues are right there, if you listen carefully.


I’d love to know if you have any tricks for working through the feedback that you receive.  How do you decide what is meaningful and what is irrelevant or ephemeral?


Mouth taped shut. Image by yoshiffles on flickr

Don't go there. Image by yoshiffles on flickr

I went to a terrible conference some time ago.  From the first talk, it was dull and worthy.  During the coffee breaks, I talked to other people, who were also driven to comment on the sheer awfulness of the event.

If you looked at the public response to this event – the Twitter coverage, for example – you would never guess that many of the delegates felt that the entire day was a waste of time.

There was a feedback form, of course, but I couldn’t bring myself to fill it in.  I felt a bit sorry for the organisers.  Worse, I felt that if I left the negative feedback that I wanted to give, it might reflect badly on me.

It was really my own fault for making a bad choice.

And there in a nutshell you have all the problems of getting real feedback.

True, some cultures are worse than others, and it’s likely that a British group will corner the market in passive-aggressive muttering; but I think you will find this underreaction everywhere.

Why don’t people want to give negative feedback?

1. The fear of hurting someone else’s feelings

If you give me an evaluation form and stand about waiting for me to fill it in, I am going to struggle to be honest.  Ask me directly and I will probably stutter unless I loved it unconditionally.

Solution: Ask for feedback later, via anonymised email, or get a third party doing the asking.

2. The gratitude problem

You’ve been invited to the event, or you’ve been given the book.  Maybe there was a free lunch involved.  Maybe you just know how much work the organisers put into it.  Being critical would seem very rude.

Solution: Really very difficult. Are the organisers genuinely open to feedback? It’s a judgement call.  If you’re the organiser and you need feedback, follow the 3rd party/anon  route above, and be aware.

3. Fear of damaging future relationships

Criticism doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  It may affect our relationships.  Sometimes we are asked to give feedback, and we have to consider what type of feedback is really being sought here.  Often, it’s applause, and we know it.  We look for the small positive things we can say, because we suspect that the capacity of the seeker-after-feedback to deal with criticism will really very limited.

Solution: Difficult.  If you or your organisation are in this category, you may not be aware of the influence you wield.  If you suspect it, best to frame honest feedback as something which will strengthen your relationship (and you’d better mean it).

Hasn’t the internet solved all of this?

Aha, you say. I can bypass the social niceties by looking at the feedback on social media sites like Twitter.

This may be true. If it’s a big event and a high-tech crowd, that’s more likely.

But for the rest of us, it’s even worse than a feedback form.

4. We do not tell the unvarnished truth on social media

The internet is touted as a place where we can be ourselves, but given the public, searchable nature of most social media sites, we hesitate.  I know the rare time that I’ve been critical on Twitter, the subject of my moaning has instantly surfaced in response.  This can be good (company solving problem) or, well, awkward.

Most of us put our best faces to the world. If we are commenting as part of an organisation, however large or small, we  are consciously managing our internet presences. I’ve heard many people say that they will not put anything negative on Twitter, because they want to cultivate a positive, upbeat image.

Solution: Don’t rely on public feedback.  Seek out private, anonymised feedback.

Overall, think about what you really want when you ask for feedback.  If you want to feel good (sometimes that’s really important!), ask personally and publicly.   If you are dead set on learning and improving, take it third party and anonymous.    Give people room to talk about their reactions.

What do you think?   Do you find it easy or hard to give feedback? (Be honest now…)