Once in a while, for one reason or another, an executive will say to me, “Well Steve Jobs said, ‘It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.'” Or they’ll quote Henry Ford, saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would’ve said faster horses.”

First, some context: The people citing these quotes are trying to make the point that listening to customers Is not a priority. What’s driving their position? Could be several factors:

  • They don’t want to take the time or dedicate the resources to understand customers’ needs. (And they might assume listening is resource-intensive.)
  • They feel as though listening to customers is an admission that they don’t know everything. (Which, of course, it is–and there’s nothing wrong with that!)

But what they don’t realize is that they are misinterpreting the quotes. Jobs and Ford aren’t saying, “You don’t need to listen to the customer.” What they’re really saying is,

“We must have an excellent understanding of the customer, and it’s our job to interpret that understanding into excellent products.”

Remember, Jobs had an incredibly unique (Jobsian!) ability to know what consumers would want–what would give them joy and utility. He WAS the avatar for Apple’s customers, and he was able to manage his team to execute almost flawlessly against that vision. Yes, perhaps he didn’t do research, but that’s because he was willing to bet the company on his own understanding of what people would buy (and love).

Similarly, Ford was probably right in speculating that people would have said they needed “faster horses.” But the brilliance is in what he HEARD, which was that people wanted a faster way to get from point A to point B. That understanding fueled Ford’s willingness to bet big on mass manufacturing of automobiles.

The bottom line: It isn’t the customer’s job to conceive of compact music devices with massive storage capabilities that feel great in their hands–or combustion engines or cars. All customers know is what they need–what their dreams, goals and challenges are. It’s up to brilliant entrepreneurs like Jobs and Ford to be great diviners and interpreters of those needs into valuable products.

By the way, when I touch on this topic in my Customer Listening talks and presentations, or when executives bring up these quotes to downplay the importance of listening to customers, I have a ready response:

“OK, great, if your name is Steve Jobs or Henry Ford, you’re excused…you already know your customers and don’t need to listen.”

Share this: