Innovate Like Steve Jobs – Listen to Customers

What?  Steve Jobs was famous for never asking customers anything right?

If this is your perception you have been misled.  Employees of other technology firms would even say, deliberately misled.  One of the best kept secrets of technological innovation has been the often quoted belief that the greatest innovator of all time (to date) never listened to his customers.

The most famous statement by Steve Jobs is his quote regarding use of focus groups to drive innovation.

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.

Notice he applies the limitation in the actual quote to “blank slate” product innovation.  It is not a blanket dismissal of the importance of including your customer in the innovation process.  It certainly is not a blanket dismissal of learning from your customer to increase their experience with your product, service or company.

While this statement is often touted by corporate division heads lining up to siphon off customer feedback dollars into their own budgets, it bears no resemblance to the importance Jobs placed on customer experience feedback.

At the 1997 Worldwide Developers Conference he indicated his full view of listening to customers (check the video out on YouTube):

You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology…I’ve made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room…As we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, it started with ‘What incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer?’…I think that’s the right path to take.

Jobs honestly believed that “really great products come from melding two points of view—the technology point of view and the customer point of view. You need both.”

If you have ever been invited to participate in one of Apple’s beta product user programs or customer experience programs, you have been “listened to” by Jobs.  He and his product development teams were masters at showing customers prototypes and then paying real attention to what they said and how they responded physically.  He would watch usage patterns when he visited various Apple Stores, in person.

In fact, it is said that Jobs intense pattern of listening and integrating customer feedback would drive most CFO’s nuts because of the iterations (read that as “cost”) he would take the product through to “get it right.”  This is why he made the demand that he run everything related to new products within Apple upon his return, especially budgets.

It did not stop with Steve Jobs though.  Listening pervades the company’s retail operations, too. Apple uses the Net Promoter Score (NPS) feedback program to measure customer satisfaction and loyalty. On a daily basis, customers are asked—across hundreds of stores—how likely they are to recommend Apple. Fred Reichheld and Rob Markey explain the process in 2011’s The Ultimate Question 2.0:

Comments from customers help [Apple] store managers prepare for service recovery calls with detractors to close the feedback loop. The outcomes of these calls, together with the customer comments, provide important coaching and feedback messages that are passed along to employees.

So, now may be the time to do what the master innovator actually DID rather than parrot back a quote taken out of context to prove ideologies that are hazy at best.  One thing Jobs and Apple proved beyond doubt is that intense customer focus is the surest way to satisfy your customers, your employees, and your financial stakeholders in the long run.