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Customers can’t tell you about…

Posted on : 23-01-2011 | By : Frank Eliason | In : Business, Leadership


I continue to hear about listening to Customers and words like innovation, but I wonder how much of this is lip service.  Even more importantly I wonder if thing like Ideation websites and other ways to show Customers you are listening are purely PR and not a true transformation in thoughts within a company.  In my opinion it really comes down to culture.  The reason I feel it is important to provide excellent Customer Service is because, more than ever, the Customer is your marketing.  If you are going to depend on Customers to sell the benefits of your product, you have to provide them the best products and service.  But will Customers help you get this best products?  Thanks to my friends at Mac Rumors, I came across this 1985 Newsweek interview with Steve Jobs (they reprinted it due to Steve’s current leave of absence – I wish him well).  At the time Steve, at the age of 30, recently left Apple and was determining his next steps.  It is fascinating to read his thoughts, especially because I believe he has held true to them 25 years later, but also how they apply to today’s business environment.  I recommend reading through the entire posts, but I want to share a part of one of the responses:

Q. In the end it did get down to who would run the company.
A. I think, more importantly, it was which philosophy and perspective, more than an individual person. You know, my philosophy is—it’s always been very simple. And it has its flaws, which I’ll go into. My philosophy is that everything starts with a great product. So, you know, I obviously believed in listening to customers, but customers can’t tell you about the next breakthrough that’s going to happen next year that’s going to change the whole industry. So you have to listen very carefully. But then you have to go and sort of stow away—you have to go hide away with people that really understand the technology, but also really care about the customers, and dream up this next breakthrough. And that’s my perspective, that everything starts with a great product. And that has its flaws. Ihave certainly been accused of not listening to the customers enough. And I think there is probably a certain amount of that that’s valid.

A key aspect to innovation is understanding your Customer and having a passion to create the best products for them.  As Steve points out, Customer may not know what they need next, but you can take Consumer insights and a passionate group of people and truly guide to the next big thing for your industry.  As I read through the entirety of the interview, I wonder if companies, with all the analytical information they have access to, are heading in the right direction.  How much of this innovation is really the artistic abilities of people connected to the needs of the Consumer, but a passion to build something new.  Do we sometimes stifle innovation by using Customer data to show it is not what they want?

The more I think about this, the more Apple’s history can help change the landscape of business in America.  This is not me being a fanboy, but instead relating their history to what we see everyday in business.  In 1983 Apple brought in John Sculley to be CEO.  John was president of Pepsico and a well respected marketer.   You can see very quickly when reading Wikipedia entry for John what eventually happened.  Here is an excerpt from the time Steve was still with the company:

some of the privileges of the elite development groups were trimmed, and projects were subject to stricter review for usefulness, marketability, feasibility, and reasonable cost.

Most people in business would read that quote and say absolutely.  Now I want you to put the Steve Jobs hat on.  Steve would view this as stifling innovation and placing costs ahead of creativity.  I do not see these words being said around Apple much today.  In fact I think the case could be made that the opposite is true.  Of course when you innovate, as Steve said in 1985, it is imperative to have the Customer in mind.  At the end  of the day you have to come out with products that sell.  I alway look at tablets as a good example.  If Steve always kept the data in mind, there is no way we would have ever seen the iPad.  Yet the Apple team created it anyway, and sales are easy proof of success.

Steve Jobs is the ultimate Linchpin but instead of being a Linchpin for Apple, he has really been one for all of business.  After returning to Apple, Steve has proven that the ‘start up’ type business model can scale and be profitable.  Who are some other business leaders that can transform business?  I think there are many, some are good, while others may have created a negative impact.