Why Steve Jobs doesn’t listen to customers

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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.

Shaun Smith

9 COMMENTS

  1. Shaun
    Great post. Couldn’t agree more. I put up a post just a couple of days ago about Starbucks – but with Apple very much in mind (scroll down through the comments).
    http://www.customerthink.com/blog/why_companies_must_lead_not_consumers

    Innovation is driven by much more than simply listening to customers (critical as that is as a way to understand customers better and deliver iteratively better products and exceptional service). It requires (among other things) a combination of cultural insight, consumer trend analysis, analysis of the mistakes and failures of first-movers, partner collaboration and most importantly an internal culture defined by a willingness to take risks and to reward change-agents).

    Apple stands for amazing, breakthrough products. So long as they keep delivering I don’t care that they don’t ask my opinion before they launch them. My power as a consumer is that I’ll vote post-launch with my credit card (and/or my opinion through social media).

  2. Shaun,

    Bravo, another insightful post!

    Does Steve Jobs really NOT listen to customers? He may have his own unique way to listen but he definitely understands the critical needs of customers. But he is not trying satisfying them all. Customers concern price, compatiability, etc. There is a long list of critical needs from customers. Apple’s always been trying to democratize technology and as a symbol of innovation, Steve knows well it’s one of the critical needs of customers, and also the DNA of Apple (i.e. reflecting Apple’s core brand values). He focuses most resource on it. Steve also understands Apple is not everything to everyone. Apple’s products are not cheap and are highly incompatiable. Apple focus their resources on a few things that are critical to target customers, and can reflect their differentiated brand values, so that a highly effective branded APPLE’s experience could be delivered.

    I’ve expanded the subject of Branded Customer Experience at my recent blog reply to Dick Lee, feel free to comment.

    Have a nice day!

    Sampson Lee
    Follow Sampson on Twitter

  3. Hi Shaun

    Another interesting post.

    I hear the Ford quote all the time. It applied to a time when the automobile market was being invented and just getting an affordable automobile on the road was a feat of production engineering. But we should not forget that Henry Ford’s stubborn refusal to offer anything more than one model in one colour soon allowed Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors to overtake Ford by providing a family of automobiles in different models and different colours, one for every pocket and taste.

    Apple has prospered both by not being customer-centric and by being very customer-centric at the same time. Let me explain. Customer-centricity has become a buzzword for companies that seemingly drive their every business action based on the needs of customers. They use all the customer research they can get hold of, but never understand more than customers’ superficial needs, create mediocre products and as a result, are unable to beat the market of less customer-centric companies. Apple is not one of these companies.

    Apple is one of those deep customer-centric companies that uses design thinking principles to understand what ‘jobs’ customers are struggling with and uses these insights to design products that provide customers with much better tools to do them. The iPod provided customers with much better ways to do the job of purchasing, storing and listening to music on the go. Similarly, the iPhone provided customers with much better ways to do many different communication and personal productivity jobs whilst on the go. We will have to see if the iPad does the same for printed media, (or whether it is another flop like the Apple Cyberdog, Newton and Lisa before it).

    Maybe Steve Jobs doesn’t listen to customers in the popular sense, but Apple sure does understand the jobs customers are trying to do. And that turned it from being an almost irrelevance in the consumer computer business to being a leader in the consumer electronic goods industry.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-centric Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

    Interested in Customer Driven Innovation? Join the Customer Driven Innovation groups on LinkedIn or Facebook to learn more.

  4. Highly incompatible?

    Everything I have plugged my Apple into so far has worked just fine, straight off the bat. (Sometimes my PCs wouldn’t even talk to their own components.)

    But this is not a fanboy rant; it’s more important than that. Because of Apple’s sales model – selling both software and hardware – Apple customers are simply never faced with “compatibility” problems. It just works. This is a crucial part of their success.

    Most customers don’t want to know what a driver or a directory is. They just want to do stuff. And that is why the iPad will be huge.

  5. Over the years I have researched, to some extent every new business or product idea I’ve ever had. In almost every case where the results were positive and indicated we should “do it” the products seemed to fall short of what the research indicated. In every case where the research told us the product is something we should NOT do, I went forward anyway if I believed in the product. In EVERY case those products were gangbuster successes.

    I continue to ASK customers and I learn interesting things from them, which helps me understand their needs. But expecting them to think of something they have not envisioned as a need is rarely productive. I ask because they want to be asked and want to contribute to the product and once I launch and make it a success, they ALWAYS have great ideas for improvement….once they get the product after the launch.

  6. Its simple. Listening to most customers gets you me too products doing the same thing a bit better.

    Most large customers and vendors are run by people interested in making money by milking the ideas and decisions of the original innovators and change agents, lacking the rounded skill set required to change even their own business. Usually ex-salesmen who got there through greed, BS and assasination of the cleverer guys or over promoted accountants who have made profits by cutting costs or working out a way to make the bottom line look better without actually doing anything to the business (never by doing things a valuer added way). People at C level in corporates don’t have an innovative product idea in their body and won’t listen either – because they can’t understand.

    Generally people in charge of public companies don’t have the fundamental set of skills and knowledge to imagine technology optimised to solve consumer and business problems.

    Which means its no use listening to them if you live by innovation, they are fearful weak followers. Consumers and self employed are braver and brighter.

    Worse, fundamental change to products and solutions are resisted by business customers and suppliers because their managements don’t understand them and won’t take any risks they might get fired for – when they can make their targets by the usual asset stripping and financial engineering that’s quicker and safer. So they only buy what they bought – and as somone else said their only criteria are – better faster, cheaper – hence commoditisation and little value add. Why PCs are successful in corporates.

    Craft people get the same old craft products using legacy technology pushed way past its sell by date – like the PC now is. Any one notice the iPad doesn’t have a overt OS, its a closed consumer product…

    Listening to these craft guys justifying their decisions is like the obvious mumbo jumbo recited by your faith of choice from its holy book – blind ignorant followership lacking the brains, breadth or courage to question logically.

    Apple’s approach is at the other end of the spectrum of imagination, imagining what might be done and fitting the technology and business model to it as it becomes possible. Because the people in charge are rounded , knowledgeable and really intelligent. Steve Jobs is much closer to a God than Bill Gates, a me too acquititive marketeer follower, could ever be. And they take the chance… based on logical intelligent extrapolation

    Of course immediately you get someone only part formed in charge even an Apple goes wrong, as it did with Scully, Amelio and all the other half formed Apple functionary CEOs.

    ONLY a deep rounded grasp of the whole business environment and the markets real needs plus the ability to extrapolate those needs onto evolving technology as the leading edges move forward across all the related impacting technologies, from displays and interfaces through LSI to comms bandwidth and market delivery, can deliver truly innovative solutions. Few companies have the people at the top who can ensure this happens.

    Finally Apple can’t be a volume solution in business. Apple with its superior ability and cultural approach will always be more readily adopted by the minority of intelligent innovative customers than dead headed corporate bureaucrats who would rather save money doing things “the way we do’em around here” than work cleverer, because they aren’t. Too many dumb people in charge buying cheap me too PCs. The people at the edges. Not the lumpen slow Balmer worshippers who are not the target, smart independent people and stylish consumers are.

    I work in technology but have no time for the people who run technology companies as a whole or most of their C level customers. They are the dead selfish hand on the innovation control. It takes an Apple, LED BY A JOBS, to do the thinking for these people, who eventually buy the Apple (or other alternative) idea adopted and bundled by Microsoft or Dell/HP so it looks safe.

    That’s again why Jobs listens – elsewhere. And imagines.

    I think. Apple has problems. I asked CTO GassÉe the Web 2.0 question in 1990, he did not even begin to understand it although all the elements were obviously converging back then. He was another problem at Apple, a CTO who lacked imagination along with the Pepsi marketeer John Scully with NO idea at all ……
    http://www.youtube.com/user/briancatt#p/u/5/9IOf6U6xzB0
    I rest my case.

    Brian

  7. Customers are unable to articulate solutions or envisage technologies. They have a “rear-view” mirror. Unless customers have advanced technical knowledge or are using existing technologies and products in new and different, challenging ways, their inputs about products and solutions are likely to lead to me-too, incrementalism.

    The problem with most VoC approaches is that they ask customers for feedback or ideas on products / technologies. Or they use it to validate existing concepts. But it is the company’s job to come up with solutions, not the customers. Real VoC should aim to uncover customer needs independent of whatever solution exists or may satisfy those needs. Separating the need from the solution in VoC leads to more useful inputs to the innovation process. Customers are unable to articulate solutions, but if you frame the problem and dialogue correctly, they are able to articulate their unmet needs.

  8. The book “How design strategies is shaping the future of business” is all about how Frog Design helps Apple listen to customers and innovate.

    Apple also has a widespread survey program (did you ever get a survey after you bought something the store?)

    I don’t buy that they don’t listen to customers.

    Al

  9. Thanks for writing.

    I enjoy reading articles that cover both sides of arguments. There is no doubt that the customer is important, they are the one paying. I think the notable thing here is if the customer could invent it, it would already exist.

    Invent it then ask people if they’d buy it. Don’t ask people what they want invented.

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