Why Steve Jobs Didn't Listen to His Customers

07/29/2014 05:08 pm ET | Updated Sep 28, 2014

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.

-- Steve Jobs

One of the most famous opinions from a highly opinionated man. Regardless of your personal view on this statement, it is remembered because of the implications that Jobs makes about customer feedback.

Forbes called the quote "a dangerous lesson." Even as someone who has presented ample research that customers can and do inspire innovation across multiple industries, I'm here to tell you that you should mostly agree with Steve Jobs' sentiments, at least in terms of developing innovative solutions for customers.

Let's look at a few split opinions on the quote, and compare the merits of focusing on internal innovation versus the insights to be gained from customer feedback.

The Benefits of Sheltered Innovation

Can the focus on the internal creativity of product teams really have a place in the business world? Should customers be ignored?

According to Mario D'Amico, senior VP of marketing at Cirque du Soleil, the answer is, well, kind of, but not entirely.

In a 2012 theoretical case study published in the Harvard Business Review, D'Amico was asked what he would do about implementing customer surveys and feedback if he were in charge of a world-class dance troupe.

The scenario posed to D'Amico was this: a new marketing executive for the dance troupe wants to implement surveys in order to find out what customers want to see in upcoming shows. She rationalizes that knowing this will help the company grow.

The company founder instead argues:

Why do we want to ask what our audience thinks?
We don't care what they think.

How can people tell you what they want if they haven't seen it before? If we ask them what they want, we'll end up doing Swan Lake every year!

D'Amico is then asked: Does customer feedback take a backseat when innovation is the primary objective?

Working for a company that thrives on creativity (read more about Cirque du Soleil), he offers a surprisingly balanced take on the issue.

First, he empathizes with the creatives as well as the founder of the company, who claim that the company's core mission (and the reason for their success) is founded on doing what no customer expects them to do:

Any innovative company struggles with how much to listen to customers. Most realize that you cannot trust them to tell you what your next new product will be.

D'Amico argues in industries where companies thrive on innovation, asking customers what they "want" does not improve a company's competitive positioning.

Apple's competitive edge is perhaps that they have been able to avoid the sameness trap. When relying on consumer input, is it not inevitable that they will tell you to do what other popular companies are doing?

How can you get ahead of the curve if your customer feedback only consists of today's ideas?

A tough question to fully answer. Let's first look at whether customer feedback is a valuable resource at all.

Do Customers Know What They Want?

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

While it is very possible that that Ford never said this, the underlying point is important: while customers can pinpoint problems, they don't usually envision the best solutions.

With the problems in predicting future customer intentions, and the potential lack of clarity in feedback, one has to wonder if there is any point to listening to customers.

D'Amico would argue yes, and I would absolutely agree:

If the directors are smart, they'll approve the idea of surveying customers. We use data to brief the members of our creative team, to help them understand who's applauding when the curtain goes down.

We don't tell them to use a red dress or a blue dress or [what to do] in a certain scene, but we do educate them. Then we get out of their way so that they can create.
His statements are right on the money and, in my opinion, can be applied to multiple industries in regards to approaching feedback.

The takeaway: Customer feedback can often guide entrepreneurs, product developers, designers and marketers towards problems, but feedback should not be used to dictate the solution.

Customer feedback is great for telling you what you did wrong. It's terrible at telling you what you should do next.
--Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote

The Real Utility of Feedback

When Ron Johnson, former VP of retail operations at Apple, became the CEO at J.C. Penny, a lot of controversy ensued with, arguably, much of it relating to knowing one's customer base.

After Johnson came on board and reformed operations at J.C. Penny, company sales dropped by double-digit percentages and stock plummeted by over 40 percent.

One of the most ambitious parts of Johnson's overhaul, the elimination of discounts, was questioned by colleagues who wanted to consult with customers (and gather feedback) about the new changes before implementing them.

Supposedly, when asked why he bristled at this suggestion, Johnson responded:

We didn't test at Apple.

Did Johnson ignore conventional industry wisdom and move too abruptly to impose practices inspired by his time at Apple? One lesson certainly learned is that J.C. Penny is a different beast when compared to Apple's innovation.

However, this situation doesn't have to be an either/or. Why not find a happy middle ground in regards to using feedback; one that promotes using customer's behavior to simply pinpoint problems.

We've seen how D'Amico at Cirque du Soleil, another highly creative company, has stated that understanding your customers' wants and pains is a pivotal part of building a better product -- and that it doesn't have to restrict your innovation.

If Jobs' situation at Apple was supposedly unique, how can other highly innovative companies implement smarter ways to find out what their customers want without sacrificing their ability to innovate? How can they fight the "sameness trap" while getting a better handle on what customers really need?

Some would argue that the answer is quite simple: Find out what customers want without directly asking them. Well, simple to say, but much harder to do.

With the dance troupe example, it is obvious that asking customers exactly what they want to see in a show will result in generic answers, and end up stifling creativity.

So, don't ask that! Far more important avenues of questioning to create an innovative dance performance might be:

  • What sort of things move customers emotionally?
  • Which shows did they have trouble understanding?
  • What visual elements left a lasting impact?

Add in demographic information, and you're well on your way to understanding customer expectations and insights -- all without resorting to telling your team of creatives to "go with the red dress instead of the blue one," just because customers said so.

I would argue that all businesses should view feedback in this way. Feedback doesn't have to control your product's road map, and you can incorporate feedback into your creative process without doing "Swan Lake every year."

Observe, don't just listen and blindly follow feedback.

Perhaps this is the truth behind Apple's innovation -- Steve Jobs did actually listen to customers, but only to find out which problems they faced, and to identify the biggest points of friction they had. He did not listen to customers' proposed solutions because his belief was that the best, most innovative solution had to come from the company.

Customers might help identify the destination, but you can't listen to them on how to get there.

Put another way, it isn't the customer's job to tell you how to solve their problem; feedback is most useful in identifying which problems actually exist.

With these types of goals in mind, companies can gather valuable feedback from their customers that need not interfere with their creative process, or dictate how they should approach developing the best solution.

But that's just my opinion... what do you think?

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About the Author: Gregory Ciotti is a marketing strategist at Help Scout, the invisible email support software for small businesses. Get more data-driven advice on building a business customers love by reading our free guide on The Art of Customer Loyalty.