Who really needs a faster horse?

You’re probably familiar with the story. Apocryphal or otherwise, the legend goes that Henry Ford dismissed customer research with the phrase, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

But not every company can rely on product innovation to create or grow market share. For many, invention isn’t really an option.
There are those in markets where the products are ostensibly or actually the same. There are those where service innovation is limited by finance or legislation, or any number of other impenetrable factors. There are those whose business success relies fundamentally not on a product, but on people. And try as we might, we can’t invent a better more innovative human being – not yet, at least.

In these types (and indeed all) businesses there is, of course, another facet to success. That is the quality of the relationships held by the people in the organisation with its customers or stakeholders. And if there is one factor which determines a successful relationship it is dialogue. And if a dialogue requires anything to succeed, it is the ability to listen.

After nearly 30 years in sales and marketing, working with some of the world’s leading brands, I venture to disagree with Henry Ford (he’s unlikely to hold it against me, he died in 1947). Listening to customers is never bad advice. Customer opinions can help shape even the most cutting-edge innovation. They’ll tell you what your competitors do better than you do. They’ll bring lessons from other industries. Customers will tell you what they like, and better, what they dislike. They will tell you their hopes and aspirations. And most will tell you if and why they’ll buy more, if you just take the time to ask.

These days there are off-the-shelf survey apps that let you ask selected groups of users anything you want to know to improve engagement and relationships. Today, I’d submit that had we been around to help Henry Ford, the research might have revealed this: not only did the customers want a faster horse, they also wanted a wider one to carry more, a reliable one that could operate over longer distances, one with a means to keep the rider protected from the elements and perhaps a safer means of travel. In short, Henry Ford’s customers wanted a better version of the horse. It turned out to be the car. It could have been teleportation if the technology had allowed. If necessity is the mother of invention, research is assuredly its father. Don’t fall into the trap of making your customers orphans of your enterprise by not listening to them.