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Steve Jobs, Innovation and Listening to Your Customers

Although there have been myriad tributes to Steve Jobs, I recently read articles that
brought out a new appreciation for the man.

Apparently, there has been controversy whether Jobs would research user sentiment or just follow his instinct when designing new products like the iPhone or iPad. Jobs has even been quoted as saying “We do no market research. We don’t hire consultants.”

However, in a Forbes article by noted business consultant Steve Denning a new angle on Apple (and by association, Steve Jobs) is revealed.

What Do You Want – Faster Horse or Model-T Ford?

Henry Ford the founder of the Ford Motor Company famously said that if he had asked his customers what they wanted, they would have told him “a faster horse”. Instead he didn’t ask them, and developed the Model-T automobile that transformed transportation in the USA.

This example would seem to imply that creativity and innovation should be divorced from customer sentiment. However, the truth is that there were many automobiles being built long before Ford built his Model-T.

Although his American customers might not have been aware of this new technology, Ford
certainly was. His genius was in realizing that when the US market was saying they wanted
a faster horse, what they really wanted (without realizing it themselves) was a brand
spanking new automobile.

Apple (and Jobs) Always Did Listen to Customers

According to Denning’s article (mentioned above), Apple is a major user of the Net Promoter Score, a popular customer satisfaction metric. Denning quotes from “The Ultimate Question 2.0” a book written by Fred Reichheld with Rob Markey, and shows how Apple consistently and regularly listens to their customers to gain real insight into what they want and expect.

He argues that this understanding of the customer is exactly what drives Apple’s
phenomenal success.

But the question remains, if customers don’t have the vision of the next iPhone or T-Model automobile, how does listening to them help drive innovation?

Extracting Innovation from Customer Feedback

While customers might not be creative inventors (although they can be), they certainly know what they want. As an entrepreneur, CEO or product manager, you must know your customers’ wants and desires and make that your starting point. From there you can extract the vision of some new product that will not only fulfill their needs and expectations, but will also absolutely surprise and delight them.

This was no doubt the genius of Ford and Jobs – their ability to combine what they
knew about their customers’ needs with a vision of what could fulfill those needs in a
most exceptional way. However, if you don’t even know what it is that your customers want
(and you can never just assume or guess), you could be way off target.

How does your company balance innovation with present customer expectations and demands? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.

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