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HBR Case Study and Commentary

Should You Listen


To the Customer?
A dance troupe debates who should determine
its creative choices. by Thomas J. DeLong and
Vineeta Vijayaraghavan

Should Delacroix launch a customer


research initiative?
Expert commentary by Mario DAmico and
Jens Martin Skibsted
EXPERIENCE For article reprints call 800-988-0886 or 617-783-7500, or visit hbr.org

Case Study Thomas J. DeLong is the Philip J. Stomberg Professor of Management


Practice at Harvard Business School. Vineeta Vijayaraghavan is a senior
research fellow at Innosight Institute.

A dance troupe debates who should determine


its creative choices. by Thomas J. DeLong and
Vineeta Vijayaraghavan

Should You
Listen to the
Customer?
The Experts

Mario DAmico, senior vice

N
president of marketing,
Cirque du Soleil
atalia Georgio knocked on the door the company needed better marketing to
of her new marketing directors of- support its expansion strategy. Elizabeth,
fice. Elizabeth Gardos hadnt done whod been keen for a new challenge and
much with the space yet. Aside from two to return to the dance scene, had jumped
chairs, a desk, a computer, and a picture of at the opportunity.
her daughters, the office was empty. So why did you want to meet? Natalia
You need to get some art in here, Nata- asked.
lia observed. I have some ideas I want to run by
I know, Elizabeth said. Its been a yousome things Ive noticed in these first
busy two weeks. I want to put up some couple of weeks.
photos of the dancers. Great, lets hear them.
The two women worked for Delacroix, Im really surprised that Delacroix has
Jens Martin Skibsted, an avant-garde dance troupe based in never surveyed or gathered information of
cofounder of KiBiSi New York that had five companies touring any kind from customers before, Eliza-
the U.S. and Canada. Natalia, a former beth said.
dancer, was the organizations executive Yeah, thats not really our thing. We
director. Shed hired Elizabeth, another take our lead from the dancers, not the
former dancer, for her decades of market- audience.
ing experience, most recently at Violet, a Then what you do here isnt really
Illustration: kyle hilton

HBRs fictionalized case studies present


dilemmas faced by leaders in real fast-growing womans athletic clothing marketing, Elizabeth said cautiously. It
companies and offer solutions from experts. company. Despite the stagnant economy, seems like marketings only responsibility
This one is based on the HBS Case Study Cirque Delacroix was growing at a healthy pace, in is to decide how long shows should run,
du Soleil (product no. 403006-PDF-ENG), by
Thomas J. DeLong and Vineeta Vijayaraghavan, part because of its policy of keeping ticket how to advertise them, and what to charge
which is available at hbr.org. prices reasonably low. Still, Natalia thought for tickets. You promote the shows and

Copyright 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved. September 2012Harvard Business Review2
EXPERIENCE

people attend, but you dont really know forced a smile and turned to Elizabeth. operate this way. Tiffany doesnt survey
who your customers are or why they come. When people come to our shows, they the women of the world asking what kind
You mean, we promote the shows, Na- expect to have an unbelievable, unique of jewelry they want. The company has
talia said, smiling. You keep saying you, experienceone that theyll never forget. faith in its designers and their imagina-
but youre part of this company now. How can people tell you what they want if tionsand it gets a better product as a
We. Sorry. they havent ever seen it before? If we ask result. We cant keep our artists inspired
Youre right; marketings role has been them what they want, well end up doing and innovative if we start letting custom-
limited up to now. But part of the reason Swan Lake every year! ers tell us what to do.
we brought you in is to give us some new Natalia shifted in her seat uneasily. Natalia looked at Elizabeth apologeti-
ideas. She knew that many of the board mem- cally, but she recognized that Henry had a
Natalia had a mandate from Delacroixs bersnot to mention the dancersfelt as point. Delacroix hadnt been founded to
board members to take the company in strongly as Henry did about maintaining meet customer needs; its mission, from
new directions: to explore international artistic control. If Delacroix were to adopt the beginning, had been to push the
engagements and television and film op- a customer-centric approach, it could lose boundaries of modern dance. Henrys
portunities. But she was nervous about for- some of its best people. relentless pursuit of that goal had brought
mulating her strategy without any research Elizabeth cleared her throat and passed the company much success.
upon which to build a case for risks worth Henry a brief report. Here are some What about what happened last year at
taking. Shed explained that to Elizabeth examples of how my previous firm, Violet, the Joyce? Elizabeth asked. Natalia looked
during the interview process. used social media to better understand at her new hire, whod clearly done her
I think we should start, at a mini- customers, get feedback on products, and research.
mum, by doing a simple customer survey, test new ideas. She paused as Henry gave Delacroix had invested a big chunk of
Elizabeth said, just with people who have the report a cursory glance. This allowed its marketing budget in promoting the
signed up on the website and clearly want us to make better decisions about how to three-month run of a new show. Expected
to be in communication with us. We can price our products, how to go to market, to be one of its best ever, the show featured
gather some basic information and find out and when to take risks with new offerings. dancers in huge masks. Unfortunately, the
what they like best about our shows. That I know the product in this case is very dif- masks seemed to terrify all the children in
will give us some insight into other audi- ferent: Were a dance company. But there the audience. There were walkouts at ev-
ences and markets we should target. are similar benefits here. Take your fan ery performance in the first few weeks, and
Thats certainly an idea, Natalia said, website, for example then parents flooded the website, as well
choosing her words carefully, but it would Yes, 90,000 people have signed up, as ticket and review sites, with complaints.
also be a big change for us. There are some Henry replied. After much internal deliberation, the com-
people in this building who will resist. She Right, its great. But youI mean, we pany decided to put a note in the program
was referring primarily to Henry Delacroix, dont really engage with those people. We warning that the masks might be scary for
the companys founder and artistic direc- have practically no data on which of them children under eight. Natalia had wanted
tor. Although Natalia was technically in are coming to our shows and why. That to do more, maybe even remove the masks
charge of the company, Henry still exerted means we have no idea which opportu- from the show, but a few board members
a lot of influence. nities to pursue next, or how to present held strong to the principle that they
So it wont be an easy sell? Elizabeth ourselvesto sell ourselvesto the media shouldnt bow to customer dictates. They
said. or to corporate partners. Were feeling also told her, however, that they didnt
No, I dont think it will. around in the dark. It may work for giants want to see that sort of mistake again.
like Apple to tell customers what they It was an unfortunate incident, defi-
The Artistic Mission want, but that wont work here. nitely a failure on our part, said Henry.
Why do we want to ask what our audience It has up to now, Henry said, smirking. But we learned from it: No more scary
thinks? Henry said. We dont care what But the game has changed. Youre masks in our shows.
they think. Elizabeth and Natalia glanced thinking about different ways to expand. But if we had an ongoing dialogue
at each other across the conference table. I know we want to go international by the with our customers, we might know these
Henry, come onwe care that they end of the year, but we know little about things ahead of timeknow that they want
come to the shows, Natalia said. what, say, a London audience would really more kid-friendly performances, or that
Of course, I know our audience is want to see. we need to market certain shows to certain
important. But our business depends on We will tell them what they want to segments of our audience, Elizabeth
the creative expertise of our artists. Henry see, Henry shot back. Many companies countered. We could avoid these sorts

3Harvard Business ReviewSeptember 2012


For article reprints call 800-988-0886 or 617-783-7500, or visit hbr.org

of failures. I know from my time at Violet Of course I remember. I also remember the table at their next meeting, only a few
that information is power. New ventures, that its part of our mission to bring mod- weeks away. Henry was right. They would
new partnerships, more exposureyou ern dance to as many people as possible. probably divide on this issue, almost
cant gamble with these things. You have Natalia tried to keep the frustration out of evenly.
to get it right. Customer research will help her voice. She knew as well as anyone how Besides, Henry continued. Were do-
minimize our risk. much Delacroix relied on the board mem- ing fine. Why rock the boat now?
Henry shook his head. Youre just not bers and dancers for innovation. But I was Now feels like precisely the time to
getting it brought in to professionalize this com- rock it, she said. The board is expecting
OK. Natalia stood up. Were not going pany, to expand on what you started. And big things from us over the next year, risky
to resolve this today. Elizabeth, can you customer researchreal marketingmay things weve never tried before.
e-mail that report to Henry and me? Well be part of that. Elizabeth knows what shes And were going to be successful only
discuss it offline. talking about. She ran the whole customer if we trust our own creativity and our own
initiative at her previous job, and it was a instinctsnot customer research.
What will you do when huge success. Natalia looked out the cab window. She
She sold clothes, Natalia, Henry said. felt tired.
our customers ask us Fair enough. But whats the harm in You still there? Henry asked.
to put our dancers in a survey or two? If the customers give us Yes.

Smurf costumes? outrageous feedback, we dont have to


listen to it.
Well, think about this. We cant have
it both ways. Either employees come first,
But if we ask what they think and then or customers do. You know where I stand.
Just One Survey? dont give it to them, well alienate them, Where do you?

Q
Natalia was in a cab and headed home Henry said. Well damage the relationship.
when her cell phone rang. It was Henry. And you know theres going to be resis-
Youre not really considering this, are tance from the board.
you? he said as soon as shed picked up. Natalia was not surprised. The business
Yes, I am. Elizabeth has some great types would be all for it, she knew, but the Should Delacroix
points. How are we going to enter interna- members with an artistic backgroundthe launch a customer
tional markets if we dont know anything ones who understood the creative pro-
about the audiences there? Natalia looked cesswould never approve it. She pictured research initiative?
See commentaries on the next page.
out over the water as the cab started across each of the board members sitting around
the Brooklyn Bridge. How am I going to
compete with every other company that
wants a chance at TV if we dont have the
customer research? Those Hollywood
execs will laugh us out of the room, never
mind the corporate partners.
And what will you do when our cus-
tomers ask us to put our dancers in Smurf
costumes? Will you order one for Sophia?
Natalia smiled at the thought of the
companys most famousand most dif-
ficultdancer dressed as Smurfette. Stop
being dramatic, Henry. Theyre not going
to tell us to do something ridiculous.
Fine, not the Smurfs, but you know
Cartoon: randy glasbergen

well have to take fewer risks, to err on the


side of selling tickets instead of pushing
the creative envelope. You were a dancer,
Natalia, one of our best. Remember the If I flee the country to avoid paying taxes,
can I write off the miles as business travel?
mission? Remember how energized you
felt by it?

September 2012Harvard Business Review4


EXPERIENCE

The Experts Respond


Mario DAmico is the senior vice president
of marketing at Cirque du Soleil.

Any innovative company struggles with At Cirque, we use research to under- culture, but we also dont want to offend
how much to listen to customers. Most stand our customers in a general waywho anyoneas Delacroix did with those
realize you cant trust them to tell you what they are, what other types of entertain- masks. For example, when we designed
your next new product will be. Its like ment they seek out, and what they expect our show for a Chinese audience, we took
Henry Fords famous line: If I had asked from the Cirque brand. We use the data to into account the meaning of certain colors
people what they wanted, they would have brief the members of our creative team, to and numbers. Its not a coincidence that
said faster horses. The answer doesnt lie help them understand whos applauding our first show in China opened on August
with the customer. when the curtain goes down. We dont tell 28, 2008, given the importance of the
But companies that want to grow as they them to use a red dress or a blue dress in number 8 in that country.
innovate often need to change the way a certain scene, but we do educate them. Natalia is right that Delacroix needs
they do things. When youre small and lo- Then we get out of their way so that they to start gathering customer data if it
cal, you dont worry about getting to know
your customers better. When you need to Our creative team has a huge sandbox to play in,
sell 100,000 tickets a week and market
to people who dont know you or your
but it has a perimeter around it that is our brand
product, its a different story. When I joined promise to customers.
Cirque du Soleil, we had seven shows. Now
we have 21. Our scale requires that we
know our audience.
Natalia should take Elizabeths proposal can create. The message is this: Although is going to grow. But she should tread
to the board. If the directors are smart, they have a huge sandbox to play in, it has lightly and use surveys in a way that is
theyll approve the idea of surveying cus- a perimeter around it that is our brand ex- acceptable to the Henrys of the world.
tomers. Then Natalia needs to be careful pectations. We want them to be innovative And Henry, for his part, needs to under-
about what she does with the data Elizabeth while still ensuring that our product lives stand that Natalia is not trying to hand
gathers. As Henry, Delacroixs founder, has up to its promise. over the direction of his shows to the
made clear, creative people dont react very Customer research and brand reputation customers. She just wants to achieve
well when you tell them what to make. Na- are especially important when entering the boards goal of bringing the Delacroix
talia needs to find devious ways to educate new markets where you dont know what brand to a broader audience. She needs
them about the audience without pressur- potential audiences expect. Cirque doesnt information about customers to accom-
ing them to create a certain product. tailor its products to a specific group or plish that.

What Would You Do?


Some advice from the HBR.org community
Delacroixs performers, much Delacroix can maintain artistic Dont ask the customers what
like great composers, create the control while engaging its audience. they want to see. Ask what stirred
shows from whats inside them I worked for an orchestra where them emotionally, what they had
their own innovationnot from the music director selected six trouble understanding, which show
customer survey data. To expand overtures and then asked concert- they wanted to bring their friends
into new markets, Elizabeth should goers to vote online for the one they to. Throw in some demographic
leverage the companys reputation wanted to hear at the final concert questions. This isnt about restrict-
for innovation and look to partner of the season. ing artistic freedom. Its about bet-
with other pioneering companies. Tim Pennell, MBA candidate, ter understanding the companys
Geoff Finken, project/staff support Boston University School of true fans so that Natalia can find
specialist, North Carolina Credit Management people cut from the same cloth in
Union League international markets.
Beth Robinson, technical customer
service engineer, Ahlstrom Corp.

5Harvard Business ReviewSeptember 2012


For article reprints call 800-988-0886 or 617-783-7500, or visit hbr.org

Jens Martin Skibsted is a serial entrepreneur and a


cofounder of KiBiSi, a product design and design strategy
company based in Copenhagen.

Before Natalia does anything, she sive, we know better than customers
needs to identify Delacroixs top priority. approach.
Henry says the troupe was founded to push Relying on consumer input would only
the boundaries of modern dance, but it lead Delacroix into the sameness trap. Cus-
also seems to want to bring dance to as tomers will invariably tell the troupe to do
many people as possible. Those are two what other popular dance companies are
very different missions. doing. That wont give Delacroix a competi-
If Delacroix wants to stay true to the tive edge. Instead, Natalia should be asking
former missionand I believe it shouldit her creative team, especially Henry, how
cant ask customers what they want. That to move forward. Or if the team is low on
would only stifle innovation. Creative and ideas, she should bring in new talent.
noncreative companies alike succeed when
If Delacroix wants to
Follow
they are guided by a clear vision, a unique
set of values, and a culture that no cus-
tomer insights could ever change. If Dela
stay true to its mission,
it cant ask customers
the
croix needs to find new sources of revenue,
it should add to the core, not change it. what they want.

Reader
If someone had told the famous Ger-
man modern dancer Pina Bausch that she
needed to change certain elements of her

Harvard
performances because they might scare Natalia and Elizabeth need to remember
children, for example, she would surely that its OK to be elitist. There is no shame
have refused. She was pursuing her own vi- in creating a product that not everyone will

Business
sion, not crowdsourcing productions. Nokia enjoy or understand. The Mot Hennessy
has tried to innovate using several highly Louis Vuitton group has an entire portfolio

Review
publicized crowdsourcing initiatives, which of companies that do very well by serving
have done little to save the mobile phone niche markets. Of course, the niche needs
company from its downward spiral. By to be big enough, but it sounds like Dela
contrast, Apple has been innovativeand croix has found that.
hugely successfulwith a closed, exclu- Natalia can let Elizabeth do a few sur-
veys; there is no downside to getting to
know the audience better. But the scope of
the research needs to be limited. She might
Before Natalia does any re- want to ask customers if they would prefer
search, she needs to think through certain discounts over others or whether
two questions: What will we do they would like food to be available at the
shows. But it must be targeted.
with the results? How will the
This is not really a question of whether to
data guide us toward our strate-
listen to customers or to employees. Every
gic goals? Customer feedback is company needs to balance the interests of
just information. Its what Natalia its various stakeholders, and Delacroix can
plans to do with it that matters. and should listen to customers on certain
George Burton, operations topics. But this is ultimately about setting
manager, Accenture, Switzerland a vision and executing on it. Delacroix
wont push any boundariescreative or
economicif it lets customers drive its
creative decisions.
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