the apprentice


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?