Drake Stimson couldn’t believe what he was witnessing.

Here he was in the house of a lady with nine cats, where the odor was so bad that he could hardly breathe, yet she was completely oblivious to the pungent combination of urine, feces, and hairballs.

As told in The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Stimson, a young marketing executive for Procter & Gamble was trying to find out why customers weren’t buying a new product that P&G had just released – Febreze.

Procter & Gamble operates their new product department much like a startup. They come up with an idea, build a prototype, test it with customers, and learn from the results.

Unfortunately, when they released Febreze with the idea that they could help people like the woman with nine cats, the market had a big yawn. People with really stinky homes just don’t realize how stinky they are!

So when marketing to people as a cure for their bad odor, the Febreze marketing team utterly failed.

But, luckily, a simple strategy saved their product — a customer interview.


Surveys vs. Customer Interviews

In addition to the woman with nine cats, Drake Stimson also went directly to one of their top users of Febreze. He didn’t just call her up on the phone; he literally visited this mom in her home to see her Febreze use in action.

Unlike the market they thought would use the product, this mom had a beautiful, fresh smell to her house. She didn’t have pets or B.O., just a normal family home.

Stimson was puzzled. Why was she using a product like Febreze to get bad smells out of a nice smelling house?

After he followed her around her home, he realized that she wasn’t using it to target bad smells in her clothes or furniture. Inatead, it was the finishing touch after doing the laundry or cleaning a room. Febreze wasn’t the cure to a bad smelling home; it was what helped a great smelling home stay that way.

Stimson was only able to learn this by actually witnessing the customer using the product. Had Procter & Gamble sent out a survey, it would have gone to the supposed target market, asking them lots of questions about why they aren’t buying Febreze. Then they would have received misleading answers that would not reveal the product‘s true value or true customer.

They wouldn’t have seen the real value of their product in action. And we would have never even heard of Febreze.


Key Customer Interview Principles:


1. Build Rapport

You want to build a solid rapport with the customers you are interviewing. More than anything, you want clear, candid, useful feedback from them. That means establishing trust, so they won’t just tell you what you want to hear.

Stimson showed up to both houses of his potential customers with genuine curiosity — just trying to learn as much as possible. Building real rapport with your customers shows them that they are valuable to the future of your product. The more they feel like they are a part of building the product with you, the better their feedback will be.


2. Focus on Listening

Once you establish rapport, be sure to listen . Listening isn’t just hearing with your ears. Listening involves “hearing” their actions as much as their words.

How are they actually using your product?

What value do they find in it?

What is the real problem that it is solving?

Remain curious and calm to get the authentic answers.

Stimson felt a great sense of despair when he realized how wrong he was about how Febreze should be marketed. But he kept it to himself so he could learn as much as possible about why the product wasn’t valuable to his initial customer.
Learn the true value of your product by listening with an open mind and genuine curiosity.


3. Probe Deeper

After you listen to your customers and see how they actually use your product, ask them follow up questions. Probe deeper to get the insights behind why they would or wouldn’t value your product enough to buy.

Instead of having a scripted list of questions, Drake Stimson followed the mom around the house asking relevant questions to her usage. This continuous questioning eventually led him to the insight with his next customer that would turn Febreze from a flop into a multi-billion dollar product.

Dig deep on the topics that your customer brings up.



Febreze was nearly a flop for Procter & Gamble.

The value of their product, as they saw it, was its ability to completely remove bad odors from fabrics. Thus, they marketed their product to customers with smelly homes and bad BO.

It was not until Drake Stimson, the person in charge of marketing for Febreze, met a woman who could not even smell the odor from her own nine cats, that he realized this was not the ideal customer.

Instead, his customer was someone who had a clean house and wanted to keep it that way.

A simple survey would not have given him this answer. It was only getting out of the building, talking with these two distinct customers, and understanding what they valued and why that led to the key insight that made Febreze worth billions of dollars.

When releasing your new products, features, or services, don’t just send out a survey asking for customer feedback. Get out of the building, talk with your customers, see the real value you provide them, and use that insight to build a business that makes a real difference in people‘s lives.