“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” – Henry Ford
This quote from the founder of Ford Motor Co is often offered as an example of how the customer doesn’t always know what it wants. I disagree, the customer always knows what it wants, it’s up to the company to listen and understand what the customer is saying.
In the above quote, the customer is really saying that they want a faster and more efficient mode of transportation. Horse = transportation for the customer, because that’s likely the only form of personal transportation that they know.
Smart companies are the ones that can interpret what the customer is really saying, and wanting. Another example is the iPhone. I remember when the iPhone debuted, a certain well-known branding expert claimed it would be a massive flop. The expert said people were used to having their alarm clock and radio and camera in separate devices. They didn’t want all of them smushed together in one clunky device.
Of course, the ‘expert’ was completely wrong about how successful the iPhone would become. Customers were happy to have all these separate devices smushed into one phone, if it was done in a way that created value for the customer. This ‘expert’ didn’t understand what the customer was saying.
When the customer gives feedback on what products it would like to see, the customer does so in terms of what products are currently available. Let’s go back to cars for a minute. When the customer says “I wish my car got better gas mileage’, what they are really saying is they wish they didn’t have to spend XX dollars a week on gas.
Maybe that means they simply want the same vehicle they have now, with better gas mileage. Or maybe it means they would be willing to buy a completely new vehicle, if it got better gas mileage. Perhaps it means they would be open to buying a motorcycle, since it requires far less gas.
It’s up to the company to understand the core issue (‘I want to reduce the amount I spend on transportation’) the customer is facing, and offer products that match the customer’s wants and needs. If a company can do that repeatedly, you win the customer’s trust and loyalty. Apple does this, so when the computer company comes out with a music player, people buy it. When Apple comes out with a phone, people buy it. Because they trust Apple to give them a product that meets their needs.
One of the first jobs I had out of college was working as a vendor for Lowes. I represented a company that sold lawncare products. I worked Weds-Sunday. On Weds-Friday, I was responsible for stocking the shelves and making sure that my company’s products were correctly displayed in the store and available for purchase. If any customer came by that needed help, I provided assistance. On the weekend, my primary responsibility was to sell directly to the customer. I stayed in the store on the lawncare isle and helped any customer that needed assistance.
One weekday, I was stocking the shelves, when a customer came up and asked me if I could help him figure out what product he needed to get rid of a certain bug that had infested his lawn. After talking to him for a few minutes, it was obvious that he had no idea what product he needed, and what he really wanted was someone he could trust to tell him how to fix his lawn.
So I did the only thing I could do; I told him I couldn’t help him. It turns out that my company didn’t make a product that addressed his particular problem as well as the competitor’s product. So I told the customer that honestly, he needed to buy the competitor’s product, because it would do a better job than ours would. I even walked him to the competitor’s product, and handed to him and told him this was the product he needed to solve his problem. The customer took it from me, and walked away without a word, in a kinda confused state as if to wonder why I had just cost my company a sale!
Two days later, I sold in that same store. So there I was setup on the lawncare isle waiting for customers. As it turns out, a representative from our competitor happened to be standing at the front of the same isle, and like me, he was waiting for a customer to sell to.
Curiously enough, after a few minutes I noticed that same customer I had helped two days previous started walking down the isle. The representative from the competitor immediately pounced “Hello sir, can I help you today?”
The customer, without breaking stride, waved his hand at him and said ‘Nope! I’m here to talk to HIM!’ and he pointed at me. The customer then walked up and thanked me, he said my product recommendation from two days ago had worked perfectly on his lawn. He then asked if I had a suggestion for another lawncare issue. This time, it turns out that my company did offer the superior product for the customer’s issue, which he bought.
The customer always knows what it wants. It’s up to the company to listen and understand what the customer is REALLY asking for.