Editor’s note: Eric Jackson’s Going Deep column is a regular feature on Tuesdays.Excellent attitude. Excellent intention. It does, however, leave open the question of what to do when the customer is definitely wrong.

There are such cases. Customers may always be right about style and fit, whether the staff was rude, or the service satisfactory, but what about those who fail to follow instructions, or who insist on using the product in ways for which it is simply not designed. Such customers are wrong. What is one to do?

The answer, I would suggest, is to pay very, very close attention. Product misuse very frequently offers an opportunity to gain important knowledge, on several levels.

Misuse and misunderstanding

The first level is about liability. If the misuse of the product causes harm, your company may be liable, even if the product is clearly intended for different purposes. I won’t pretend to be qualified to offer any advice on this point, but it is worth keeping in mind and I include it here for the sake of completeness.

The next level is about product defects. If the customer has made a mistake in using your product, it is possible, if not likely, that their mistake points to a defect that could be fixed. It may be that the product is harder to use than is necessary, or that the instructions are unclear. It may even be the case that the marketing is misleading and leaves the customer confused about what the product does and how.

The problem may be deeper still. It may be that your company has misunderstood or overlooked some critical aspect of the need your product seeks to satisfy. In this case, further refinement and development of the product may be necessary in order for you to properly serve your intended market. Of course, it may simply be the case that the defect is in the customer, but this is far less often the case than we would like to believe. And if several or even a few customers make the same mistake, the likelihood that the problem is yours skyrockets to near-certainty.

There is an important implication here for customer service and support organizations. While recording for quality control may yield important results in quality, it will not pick up patterns in problems that point to things to fix. It is critical, even if you are a small organization, to have a way to track the issues that arise and the questions that frequently come up. This may be one of the best ways to get important feedback on a wide range of improvements that need to be made in products, documentation, even your company’s internal processes.

Pushing the development

There is another, still deeper level of learning that is possible here as well. When a customer attempts to use your product in ways that fall outside its intended design, it may indicate an opportunity, rather than a problem. Perhaps you can offer something that the customer thought you already offered. Or perhaps there is an unexpected need that, with a little more development, your product (or your modification of someone else’s product!) could satisfy, even one almost completely unrelated to its original purpose. Creative misuse, intentional or not, can be a tremendously valuable source of inspiration for new product development.

Fortuitously, I encountered a wonderful example of this in the 9/20/2004 issue of Business week yesterday, after I’d already written this article. It turns out that a little fiddling with the circuits in a $99 webcam, plus a bit of software to clean up the images, produces an surprisingly effective device for capturing pictures of bright deep-space objects such as planets and nebulae. A few players have picked up on this trend and have begun offering pre-modified webcams for around $300. With regular astronomy cameras costing $1500 and up, the new products are finding a lucrative, previously untapped market.

Here too are important implications for your company. Organizations have a tendency to shut such customers down, to try to force them into the “correct” model, or to wash their hands of them. Certainly, your traditional support organization will not be able to handle such customers, but it is critical that there be mechanisms for passing such information on up to those responsible for thinking about product development.

In sum, perhaps the adage needs to be updated a little. Customers may not always be right, but they deserve our interest and enthusiasm either way.

Ideas? Suggestions? Contact Eric at eric@deepweave.com

Eric Jackson is the founder of DeepWeave. He has built his career pioneering software solutions to particularly large and difficult problems. In 2000, Eric co-founded Ibrix, Inc. He is the inventor of the Ibrix distributed file system, a parallel file storage system able to scale in size and performance to millions of terabytes.