That is None of Your Customers’ Business (But THIS Is!)

Henry Ford was said to have quipped (although this is an urban legend), “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.” More recently, former Apple CEO Steve Jobs echoed that sentiment when he said, “It isn’t the consumer’s job to know what they want”.

That principle might have served you well in the past, when a business would see customers as just walking dollar signs – in other words, just buyers for their products and services. They were passive recipients of what you offered them (hence the term “consumers”), and got whatever you offered them.

That has changed now, and that kind of thinking won’t work in today’s business world. Any business that still treats their customers that way won’t last very long. Customers have more power and influence than ever before, and you can no longer treat them as outsiders.

In fact, your best customers want to be involved in the success of your business. Invite them into your business, ask for their ideas, and many of them will participate enthusiastically with no reward except the opportunity to contribute.

Pick Your Battles

You can involve your customers throughout the business, but be more careful when it comes to innovation.

Think of your business as operating at three levels:

  • Why: Your purpose, mission, vision, values and goals
  • What: The products and services you offer
  • How: The processes you use to deliver those products and services

You usually won’t ask your customers for innovative ideas in developing your “Why”. That’s your job, as an organisation or team. You can – and should – ask employees, suppliers and internal stakeholders, but not customers.

You also won’t usually ask your customers for innovation in the “How” of your business, because that involves your technical expertise and internal know-how. Most customers just aren’t qualified to innovate in this area.

The place where customers can add most value is in the “What” – that is, ideas about your products and services. They can tell you what products they like, what features they like most, what bugs them most, what problems you can solve for them, and so on.

The article “Turn Customer Input Into Innovation”, in the Harvard Business Review, reinforces this idea:

“Companies go about listening to customers all wrong – so wrong, in fact, that they undermine innovation and, ultimately, the bottom line … Customers should not be trusted to come up with solutions; they aren’t expert or informed enough for that part of the innovation process …. Rather, customers should be asked only for outcomes – that is, what they want a new product or service to do for them… What form the solutions take should be up to you.”

So, ask your customers for ideas about the “What”, and tackle the “Why” and “How” internally.

Like everything, there are exceptions to this rule. For instance, some of your best and most loyal customers might be so close to the business that it is appropriate to involve them in shaping your “Why”. And some customers do have enough technical expertise to make meaningful contributions to your internal “How”. But as a rule, you will get most value by asking for their “What” input.

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