The story

Most of you will be familiar with The Emperor’s New Clothes: a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. In this article I’ll show you how to apply its lessons to winning and retaining customers in 2020.

A quick recap: an emperor, famous for his vanity, gets scammed by a couple of con-men masquerading as tailors.

They convince the emperor that they can make him the finest robes the world has ever seen: so fine, in fact, that they would be invisible to stupid people.

The emperor is sold on the proposal, the tailors set to work, and the emperor parades his new “clothes” on the streets in front of hundreds of people.

Not wanting to either embarrass the emperor, or themselves, the crowds go along with the illusion until suddenly a child pops out of the crowd and yells:


The people realise what’s wrong, but the emperor continues parading himself, completely oblivious to what they are thinking and feeling.

The lessons

It’s not customers’ responsibility to be our oracles

Among other things, the story highlights:

  • The role that ego and vanity can play in judgements and decision making
  • The challenge of speaking truth to power
  • The way children, especially small children, can cut straight through to the truth in a way that most adults can’t (or are too shy/ socially conditioned to do)

The story also applies very well to business.

Imagine that a business is the emperor, and the crowd are its customers.

Normally, we can’t rely on customers to tell us- without being prompted- the full, unfiltered truth about what they’re thinking about our products/services, and certainly not in real time. Usually they only do this when they’re exceptionally happy, or exceptionally unhappy.

And if you think about it, why should they tell us exactly what they’re thinking?

In ancient Greece, people would visit oracles- individuals who were supposedly gifted with divine talents- to deliver insight, wisdom and predictions about the future.

But it’s not customers’ responsibility to be our oracles.

I often receive customer satisfaction surveys in my email inbox: my first reaction to these is to ask myself what the incentive is to fill them in. Sometimes I do; usually I don’t. There needs to be a clear incentive, or WIIFM (“What’s In It For Me?”).

It’s therefore quite easy to lose opportunities to serve customers better, or to lose customers outright, without understanding why- or even knowing that it has happened- until it’s too late.

This is happening at scale in the current crisis.

Beware the reality distortion field

Our perceptions of how great our products and services are can be easily be distorted.

Here are some powerful reality-distorting forces:

  • Ego
  • Fear
  • Lack of information
  • Misinformation/ poor quality data
  • Wishful thinking
  • Heritage (basing your assumptions about how things are now on your past performance)
  • Nostalgia (a yearning for things to “go back to where they were”, or assumption that they will- particularly relevant in 2020!)
  • Crisis (the game can change quickly- and customer priorities shift along with it- also very relevant in 2020!)

Just like the emperor’s clothes, they can form a reality distortion field around us. A reality distortion field is like a black hole in the sense that it twists reality out of shape: things are not as they seem. We may see things as we would like to see them, rather than seeing them as they really are.

This can mean that we think we’re providing what our customers want, when in fact they want something else.

So how do we break through the distortion to the reality experienced by our customers?

The child in the crowd is your oracle

The child in the crowd is that rare customer who will provide unfiltered feedback under a range of circumstances- good, bad, and neutral:

They might be a “superfan”, or a personal friend, or just one of those people who loves giving feedback.

The child in the crowd will help you bust through reality distortion fields and cut through to the reality that your customers are experiencing. This means you will be better placed to solve their problems.

The flip side of this, of course, is that you may come to understand that they’d be better served elsewhere. If that’s the case, you need to decide whether to adapt to better serve them, or let them go. This gets complicated when contracts are involved: I won’t get into that here but these things are infinitely easier to resolve when there is a lot of good faith and openness on both sides.

Another issue is that the child in the crowd may not be representative of other customers, which is why it’s important to get a statistically significant amount of data. Just bear in mind that every customer is special, and they like to be treated that way!

The good news is that any customer can, in principle, be the child in the crowd, if you do two things:

  1. Create an environment that supports open dialogue

There are many components to this, and numerous technologies that can help, such as feedback forms, SMS surveys, chat analysis and support forums.

But no amount of tech will help unless you have a genuine interest in your customers. Otherwise, feedback will be tedious and perfunctory for everyone concerned.

So before you set up any tech, get the environment right.

Genuine interest, by definition, is impossible to fake: If your business is not supremely interested in your customers, then customers won’t be supremely interested in your business. How you choose to show genuine interest is up to you, and also depends on the type of business you’re running.

If your business is not supremely interested in your customers, then customers won’t be supremely interested in your business.

Here are a couple of examples of companies who take this to a (happy) extreme:

Innocent Drinks invites customers to give them a call, just for a chat, for any reason whatsoever: a service they call the Innocent Chinwag.

Zappos has a similar approach, with their Customer Service for Anything program. The record for their longest customer call ever stands at a whopping 10 hours and 51 minutes!

Both of these companies are going all chips in with their commitment to showing genuine interest in their customers, because they believe that it pays them back in extraordinary customer loyalty.

When a customer feels a great deal of loyalty to your business, they are incentivised to become a child in the crowd.

Do you enjoy talking to your customers? I mean, really? Or are they a tiresome inconvenience?Image by Clay Banks on Unsplash

2. Ask open ended questions

An open ended question is a question that doesn’t have a simple (yes/no) answer, and which invites the customer to elaborate.

For example:

“Why did you choose this one?” (and not that one?)

“What do you think about this product/service?” (and why?)

“How have lockdowns affected your business?”

“Why did you buy from us?” / “How did you hear about us?”

“What are your biggest concerns right now?”

And so on.

I particularly like “why” questions, because these questions shine a direct light on the reasons for a particular customer behaviour.

Bonus tip: try asking customers questions whose answers you’re slightly afraid of, such as:

“Have you ever thought about leaving?” (and why?)

“What do you think of our competitors?”

Don’t go overboard with this: be sure to choose and frame these questions carefully and not interrogate your customers: keep the presentation light and remember the WIIFM principle.

But remember: fear is a powerful reality-distorting force! Don’t avoid asking questions because you are afraid that the answers might force you to change direction. It’s better to know about the iceberg before you crash into it!

Applying the idea to new/adapted products and services in 2020

The ideas above also apply to new products and services.

“The Mom Test”, from the book of the same name, is a test of a business idea that gets to the truth of what customers think, feel and want, even when, for whatever reason, they’re not telling you the (full) truth.

The book derives its name from the observation that if you’re launching a new business idea, and you ask your mum if she likes it, chances are, she will say yes, because she wants to be supportive, or isn’t sufficiently invested in the problem in the same way that you are.

(Note: this is not to say that mums don’t deliver honest feedback. The point is that love can lead people to tell white lies about business ideas.)

But the problem is in the question: it’s framed to seek validation rather than to find out what your mum is actually interested in. Therefore, you need to ask open-ended questions that dig deeper into the kinds of problems your mum (or your customers) are actually facing and what they actually did the last time they faced them, as opposed to what you hope they would do if they used your product.

When you do that in a structured way, you may well find that actually there’s no real interest at all for your idea, or that it needs tweaking.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re running a gym. You had to close during the last lockdown and you want to develop new, lockdown-resistant services. You might be thinking about running online classes. But do they actually want online classes? You talk to your customers:

You: “How did you keep fit during the lockdown?”

Customer: “I went running every day.”

You: “Why?”

Customer: “It was a great way of spending time outside and connecting with nature”

You: “What, if anything, did you miss about the gym?”

Customer: “I missed the social aspect, and using the machines…”

You: “What didn’t you miss?”

Customer: “The aches and pains! I’ve had a chance to heal up from old injuries and work more on my cardio and mobility”

You: “What do you think about online classes?”

Customer: “I think they serve a purpose for some people, but I don’t really like them…”

And so on. You can then dig into ways in which you can potentially better serve this customer: for example, perhaps you can develop services that focus on building cardio endurance via remote coaching, rather than just putting on online classes and hoping people show up.

The other important point here, especially when launching something very new and/or very innovative, is that sometimes customers don’t know whether they really want something or not, so you just have to see if/ how they use it, which means gathering data on user behaviour rather than what they say.

This is particularly applicable to digital products/ startups. In so-called “lean startup’’ methodology, you build a rough prototype, launch it quickly, and use the user data to improve it in rapid development cycles (build-test-iterate). At any point this might mean throwing the whole thing out and starting again.

It’s worth noting that you might not need to actually build anything to get useful data: it could just be an idea on a piece of paper (a “paper prototype”) which you pitch to potential customers to see if they’re interested in actually paying for it. If not, then you have to go back to the drawing board!

None of this can happen if you cloak your idea in a reality distortion field or emperor’s clothes. You have to try your best to cut through to and connect with the reality customers are experiencing, unhindered by ego, wishful thinking, or anything else.

Final thought for 2020 and beyond

As I write in my book, in the current crisis, we are all facing the same radical uncertainty faced by startups: assumptions and previously accepted ways of doing business are being seriously disrupted, or thrown out of the window completely, so we need to keep up to date with rapidly evolving customer needs and priorities.

Don’t get left behind!