Customer experience: Listen or lead?

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” – Henry Ford

If you work in marketing, or with retail and CPG companies, it’s likely that this quote from the pioneer of the motor-car is burned on your brain, whether or not you totally agree with it.

People like Henry Ford have a vision that becomes all-consuming, and they don’t need public encouragement and re-inforcement to keep the flame alive.  Steve Jobs is a more recent example of someone who had little time for consumer polling, and it’s chastening to remember now that many people predicted the iPad would fail – or only ever reach a niche market – as it didn’t have a physical keyboard.  Before Dyson became a household name, how many people were going around saying to themselves, “My Hoover works fine but I could really do with a cleaner that picks up dirt in a completely different way”?

Even braver than the people who choose not to consult the public are those who do, and then when faced with unwelcome results choose to follow through their own vision regardless.  The Sony Walkman bombed in focus groups and consumer testing, but the then-president of the Sony Corporation stuck by it, in the face of personal criticism and shareholder risk.



Henry Ford’s quote is often the starting point for the great debate that continues to roll over the years: is innovation best in the hands of the companies that use customer feedback, consumer research and focus groups to steer the direction of their product development, or those willing and able to rely on a visionary outlier with a singular picture of a brighter future in his mind, and an iron will to push it through?  It’s a lovely debate as there are compelling examples on both sides, and (although admitting this kinda spoils the fun of the drink-fuelled pub debate) there’s obviously room in the consumer universe for both models to co-exist.

Canvassing your own customers essentially means you’re always in your comfort zone.  And if there’s one thing disruption is never supposed to be, it’s comfortable.  In theory, one could say that the consumer segment residing in the first 2.5% of the technology adoption curve (and appropriately labelled “Innovators”) would indeed be people that the likes of Steve Jobs would like to hear from.  But these people aren’t necessarily the same people for each product or innovation, so finding them becomes a potentially wheel-reinventing exercise every time.



But if we can’t all find the new Henry Ford or Steve Jobs, or can’t even guarantee we’ll be among the first to jump on the new bandwagon, we can at least take their lessons to heart in how we think about not just New Product Development but about how we think about Customer Experience more widely.  Yes it’s good to know your customer and ask them what she or he would like to see, but sometimes it’s best just to follow your heart, to feel the fear and do it anyway.

Here’s to the innovators.  Long may they disrupt.

Contentious?  Moi?  Do let me know…