Were Henry Ford and Steve Jobs Right About Customer Feedback?

Famous entrepreneurs Henry Ford and Steve Jobs were known for dismissing customer feedback. However, their stories prove that by ignoring consumers blindspots are created and competitors succeed, writes, Leela Srinivasan SurveyMonkey CMO.

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“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”

~Steve Jobs (as quoted in Inc Magazine)

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

~Henry Ford

 

Both Henry Ford and Steve Jobs have become notorious for dismissing customer feedback as a viable source of innovation. There’s some debate about whether or not the Henry Ford quote is accurate, but nevertheless the more I speak and write about the emergence of the Feedback Economy, the more people ask me about these famous quotes from famous entrepreneurs.

Suddenly feedback became really easy to share—and share we do. There are billions of reviews of products, services, restaurants, travel destinations, company cultures, and CEOs online. Recent SurveyMonkey research found that 85% of people will leave feedback after a good experience, and 81% will leave feedback after a negative experience. That’s a lot of people commenting on how you’re doing. If you deliver sub-standard products and services or deliver them after you promised, you will be exposed. If you’re paying women less than men at your company, the web will tell the world. 

Learn More: Why Your B2B Website Isn’t Converting More Customers Than Your Sales Team

Feedback has become pervasive and public. But, the people who love these quotes ask, does the customer really know best? Does the prevalence of feedback mean we should be incorporating it into our plans? Should we be listening to customers?

Let’s explore how Ford’s notorious attitude toward customer feedback played out for his company. Even if he didn’t say it, Ford exhibited a disregard for the opinions and preferences of his customers. Remember how he offered the Model T in any color they wanted… “as long as it is black”? 

As Patrick Vlaskovits explained in HBR, Ford had a vision for the first great mass-market automobile and (equally important) how to produce it. But there’s evidence that his dismissal of customer feedback created a blindspot. Vlaskovits writes, “As long as the Model T’s design remained ahead of the competition, as long as it competed on price, and as long as the market’s needs remained static, this was a successful and disruptive innovation strategy.” But when GM produced a slew of innovations in the 1920s, including new designs and financing options to address customer feedback and suit changing market tastes, Ford’s market share started to slip. 

Although Ford was a leader in the category, competitors found it easy to take market share by delivering a similar product tailored to customer demands. GM was listening to customers. Ford was not. (And given the latest numbers in our Mobility Index with J.D. Power, the auto industry should learn from Ford’s mistake and keep listening at all costs…)

Seventy-five years after Ford’s famous fumble, Steve Jobs was quoted saying things that sound very Ford-like. However, there’s more to the quote above. It indicates that Jobs really did listen to customers. He might have listened more deeply than most entrepreneurs. He said:

“It sounds logical to ask customers what they want and then give it to them. But they rarely wind up getting what they really want that way… I think really great products come from melding two points of view—the technology point of view and the customer point of view. You need both.”

Jobs’ early reticence to embrace customer feedback evolved over time as he came to understand that you don’t necessarily want to take customer feedback at face value; the crucial piece is understanding the “why” behind that feedback. Pairing the customer’s “why” with his own unique perspective on what technology could do to serve that need was Jobs’ secret sauce.

So what can we take away from the stories of these two famous innovators and entrepreneurs? First, customer feedback is important. Not listening to it can create blindspots your competitors can use to their advantage, like GM did to Ford.

Learn More: Breaking Through the Noise: 4 Tips For Getting Your Brand Noticed Online 

Feedback Collection 

Second, just collecting feedback isn’t enough. It’s important to get to the why behind the feedback so you can identify the true customer need behind each request and use your unique and innovative work to fulfill it. Design Thinking has become popular within innovative companies as a solution-based approach to solving problems of any kind. And the first, most important step in any Design Thinking process is to develop a deep understanding of the user. You need empathy to understand the needs of the people you’re designing for. Feedback gives you a priceless window into how they think and feel. 

Third, times have changed—and feedback is now more pervasive than ever. Maybe Henry Ford wouldn’t have been so dismissive of colors other than black if he had 100,000 Twitter followers demanding the rise of the red Model-T? Today, people expect the brands they love to listen to them—and it pays off when you do.

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