Stop Asking Your Customers What They Want
In business today, we are told to believe that the customer is always right.
So surely it makes sense to to ask their opinion, listen to them, and actively respond to their advice with new products, adjustments and enhancements.
This makes sense, broadly, for incremental changes. Changes that develop a new product that is one or two steps forward from what is available today. Or when an existing product is tweaked or enhanced to eliminate a flaw or produce a refined benefit.
But if you're looking to disrupt the market, to change the game, this premise doesn't hold.
Customers know what they know. They know what is currently on offer and they know how that product solves a specific problem (or doesn't). They know the other competing products and what they do or don't do. But they don't think in terms of disruptions, new models, new delivery capabilities etc. They don't know what kind of product could make their life better, simpler or more efficient.
Why would they? That's not their job. It's yours.
Steve Jobs was famous for saying, among other things, that it's not the customer's job to know what they want. He was (and still is) right.
The arts offers a great analogy. Bowie didn't survey his fans before he changed personas. He had a sense of different styles that intrigued and resonated with him, that were prevailing in the world around him and concocted his characters, his styles and his music accordingly, leading the way for his "consumers".
(Art is different, I hear you say? Sure, in some ways, it is, but in many others, it isn't. There is great art in great businesses as much as there is in a song, a film or a painting. There is the mastery of the tools and techniques required. There is the understanding of how to apply these tools to create. There is the singular vision of the creator that drives all else to achieve that vision, so that that art can change the way people think, feel and act. Art is business, and business is art.)
Great businesses have applied these ideas to positive effect, including in the last decade. Examples abound, with Apple leading the way:
The iPhone, which just celebrated its 10 year anniversary. Who knew we wanted the internet with us all the time and be able to integrate so many practical daily life features into a single device that fit into your pocket?
The iPad. When it first came out, I resisted buying one for months, because I thought - who needs another computer? But the practical value it brought, bridging the gap between your smartphone and your laptop/desktop, changed the game. (Of course, they're much more powerful now. and encroaching on laptop territory.)
Disruptions aren't exclusive to Apple, of course.
Take Uber - get a ride in a car owned not by an official taxi company but by a complete stranger? That's nuts - which customer would buy into that premise?
Or AirBnB - pay to stay in someone's apartment or house, that isn't affiliated with a known hotel or hospitality company? I don't think so.
It's easy to take these ideas for granted now, but they weren't at the outset and it isn't clear that asking the customer their opinions would have yielded any value.
So listening to customers makes sense - at times.
But not if you're looking to change the game, and disrupt your market.
To quote Steve Jobs again, “It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."