Watching the launch of Apple’s iPad, I was struck by the fact that Steve Jobs famously doesn’t pay too much attention to customer research. (“We do no market research. We don’t hire consultants,” he said recently). And yet – or should that be because of – this refusal to pay much attention to what customers say they want, Apple has become the ultimate game changer.
Whether the iPad – a giant version of the iPhone, more or less – is as big a success as Apple’s last two blockbusters – the iPod and iPhone – remains to be seen. If history repeats itself we will be asking ourselves in two years, “How did we ever do without the iPad?”. Jobs’ determination to carve his company’s 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.
Or indeed whether. Henry Ford supposedly said if he had asked his customers what they wanted, before coming up with the Model T, they’d have asked for a faster horse. Tom Peters and others have long pointed out that the customers least likely to help you move on to the next innovation are the biggest customers you have. For B2B suppliers, those customers who provide most of your profit 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, cheaper. They want a better version of what they’ve already got.
Gary Hamel, back in the 1990s, pointed out that the future is already with us, it’s just at the edges. What starts off as fringe ends up mainstream. So, if you are going to listen to customers you may want to start with those noisy, complaining, fringe customers who are always asking for something completely different to what you are currently offering…providing of course they are really your target customers.
Customer innovation isn’t ‘forward looking’
Hamel argues that the most innovative companies, like Jobs’ Apple, are not the most forward-looking. ‘Forward-looking’ as an approach to customer innovation misses the point. Jobs is, rather, adept at seeing under the surface of what customers want now; they just don’t realise it until they see it. This ability 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 or customer readiness. People like Jobs can see what the market is ready for before the market knows it itself.
In aiming to craft a distinctive, unique customer experience, you need to follow the same approach – look for the unspoken needs, not just what existing customers are already asking for, or what existing competitors are doing. That way lies simply competitive convergence. Or sameness. In short, mediocrity.
Yes, you need Voice of the Customer Programmes, but…
Of course you need voice of the customer programmes to keep you continuously improving and to identify problems with the existing customer experience. You need to know what’s broken with your current offer. But, 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
Customers want to be surprised and delighted. 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 on Valentine’s day. It somehow doesn’t work.