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This article originally appeared in Harvard Business Review on April 28, 2011

Some CEOs truly crave direct customer contact. Apple’s Steve Jobs and Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, are well known for directly emailing and engaging with their customers. I know a former CEO of a large beverage company who so loved direct consumer contact he couldn’t contain himself at focus groups. After watching behind the mirror for a spell, he’d burst into the room and start talking directly with the subjects, much to the chagrin of his market researchers.

Unfortunately, many CEOs have limited direct contact with their customers, and much of the feedback they receive from customers isn’t very useful, for three reasons. First, too much of it feels like a massive game of telephone: it’s hard to know if the unfiltered truth is coming through. Second, consumer research often requires trading off depth for breadth. Do you trust the data from a snazzy, emotive and authentic ethnographic video of a few specific consumers, or do you trust the power of aggregate data from thousands of customers, even if that data is one dimensional and at times difficult to interpret? Third, sometimes the data is so fragmented by the function where it came from (e.g., from marketing vs. R&D) that it is hard to get an integrated picture of what to do next.


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