Why Steve Jobs Never Listened to Customers

Letting Innovation Set the Pace

Steve Jobs famously didn‘t pay too much attention to customer research. And yet – or should that be because of – this refusal to pay attention to what customers say they want, Apple has become one of the most valuable and loved brands on the planet.

Jobs’ determination to carve his own path to innovation is an example of why you need to be bold to win in business today. And that includes how you listen to customers.

Consumers today are bombarded by requests to complete surveys, respond to text messages asking for feedback or post positive reviews on TripAdvisor. And customers are getting tired of it. What ever happened to the old notion of engaging directly with customers and getting an intuitive feel for what they would really value?

I was dining at a leading hotel brand recently and the General Manager stopped to chat at my table but he seemed more concerned about regaling me with his own experience than actually asking if I had any comments on my experience of his restaurant. Now I happen to know that, like many other establishments, this particular hotel uses guest feedback questionnaires - and I assume that their response rate is in the 5% range, which is typical for the sector. Now, half of those responses will be from highly delighted customers for whom everything was wonderful (never trust TripAdvisor ratings from honeymooners!) The other half will be from guests who want to rant because everything was awful in their view. In either case the responses are not representative of the main base of customers and are probably not that objective either so there is probably little to be learned in terms of what you need to do to innovate.

Even when customers do respond to requests for feedback they are not able to tell you how to innovate. For example, Henry Ford famously said if he had asked his prospective customers what they wanted they’d have asked for a faster horse rather than the Model T.

The same is true in B2B markets. The customers least likely to help you move on to the next innovation are often the biggest customers you have. For B2B suppliers, those large accounts that generate most of your revenue today are those whose views you pay most attention to. Yet ask them what they want and it is likely to be the usual thing – better, faster, but mostly cheaper. They want a better deal than the one they’ve already got.

Gary Hamel, one of the leading thinkers on business innovation, once said that the future is already with us, it’s just at the edges. What starts off as fringe ends up mainstream. Think about the impact that digital cameras had on Kodak, or Netflix had on Blockbuster. Do you think their customers could have told them what they wanted? Watch what Uber will do to car hire and Bitcoin will do to banking in the next few years.

So what is the answer? What should businesses do?

Jobs was adept at seeing under the surface of what customers actually ask for and perceiving what they really want - buy just don’t realise yet. Who knew we needed an iPad until Apple invented it?

This ability to see the future is best expressed by the German word ‘zeitgeist’ – the emerging spirit of the age or mood of the moment. It probably best translates as market readiness. People like Jobs see what the market is ready for, before the market knows it itself.

In aiming to craft a distinctive, unique offer for your brand, you need to follow the same approach – engage with your customers directly, listen carefully and look for their unspoken needs, not just what they are already asking for, or what your existing competitors are already doing. That way lies competitive sameness. In short, mediocrity.

Yes, of course you need ‘Voice of the Customer’ and NPS measurement programmes, but these should be used to tell you what frustrates customers or how you are falling short in your current operations. But if you want to know how their lives are changing or what their emerging needs are, that is best done by tuning into your social channels and forums so you spot the trends. By all means listen to your customers but understand that what your customers say they want from you is probably exactly the same thing they tell your competitors too – and so if you act on that alone, there is likely to be more in common between you and your competitors than there is that sets you apart.

Customers love it when you surprise them – in a good way of course. And to surprise and delight someone, you don’t ask them “What can we do to surprise and delight you?” That’s an oxymoron. It’s a bit like asking your partner what you need to do to be romantic. It somehow doesn’t work.

Shaun Smith

Founder Smith+Co


|2018-02-19T12:43:07+01:00Feb 19 2018|Blog|

About the Author

Over the last 15 years, Shaun has defined much of the thinking and methodology around customer experience. He continues to speak, write, consult and provokeFind out more

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