When I was in marketing at Apple back in the late 90s, there was this meeting called the Customer Advisory Board. It was organized by the late tech writer Don Crabb. He assembled a group of 30 or so executives from large companies that bought a lot of Apple products. Technically, they were customers, but they weren’t necessarily end users. Their concern about Apple’s survival had more to do with covering their asses about large purchases than vested interest in getting their work done.
For three days they raked us over the coals. Many of the issues they brought up had nothing to do with Apple. A lot of them were still trying to get their head around the Internet. Since most of them were media companies they were probably questioning their own futures.
They insisted Steve Jobs be at the meeting. Since they were all high up in the food chain so they were used to having their demands met. Jobs pretty much ignored their request until the very last hour of the very last day. When he showed up, they were expecting to give him a good talking to.
The first thing Steve Jobs did was tell one of the guys in the front row to put his Newton away. He told the guy he didn’t need to write anything down. He then went on to answer every question they asked, but not with the answers they were looking for. My favorite was when the guy from a major printing company asked, “How are you going to ensure us that Apple will be around next year?” Jobs responded, “How about we start by not losing a billion fucking dollars?” That was pretty much the tenor of the meeting. Nothing really got accomplished.
That might not have been the most polite way to talk to a customer, but the people in that room weren’t there to help. They just wanted to get their pound of flesh from the company. If you’re customers isn’t willing to help you help them, then you’re talking to the wrong customer.
* For obvious reasons I left out the names of the companies and attendees.
The meme, “It’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want” is becoming conventional wisdom due to everyone reading the Steve Jobs bio and retweeting some form of it ad nauseam.
Unfortunately most of the people aping the line are doing it out of context and using it to justify not listening to customers at all. When Jobs said it, he was responding to a question about market research. He wasn’t putting down customers. I think he thought market research was pointless. You don’t need to spend time and money asking people the same question – “if we solve your problem will you buy our product?” He already knew the answer and trusted his own judgement over those far removed from the creative process.
Most market research is optimized for collecting, processing, and normalizing. It’s totally uninspiring and mechanical by design. If you want to learn anything about someone, you need to spend some time with them in a meaningful conversation.
While Steve Jobs wasn’t great at engaging customers, he did listen, and he was genuinely interested in creating something of value for people. The challenge in talking to customers is they usually lack the vocabulary to articulate things in neat, tidy, ready-for-production concepts.
You don’t need to listen to customers if all you want are answers. If you’re looking for inspiration and the raw goods to breakthrough ideas, then you should be all ears.
I have no intention of reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In”. It’s not because I think assertive women are bitches. It’s because the world doesn’t need another piece of ghost-written business porn telling the rest of us how it’s done.
It’s like when Seal and Heidi Klum split? They were the perfect couple, they had it all. What hope did the rest of us have if they couldn’t make it? If you could relate to that, then you shouldn’t have any problems identifying with Sheryl Sandberg in her book.
While it has sparked a national debate, it’s easy to forget it’s just another business book. And like all popular business books, it’s written by a winner. By all counts, Sandberg is one. Success in business is measured by how much money you have made, not how you made it.
If anything this book is for people who want to chose work over family, but need to look cerebral about their decision. If you struggle with the life-work-family balancing act, I don’t know how you could possibly take her seriously.
I’m waiting for a flu shot at the drug store and I thought, “why can’t they dispense a vaccine with something like those blood pressure machines you see everywhere?”
While I can already hear the myriad reasons people think you can’t or shouldn’t, I still think it would go a long way to taming epidemics like the one we are currently seeing.
Here’s an interesting siting. I spotted in the back hallway of a large grocery store. I liked how they’ve put this in a place where customers and employees can see what they need to work on and how they’ll do it.
Granted its blank so it may be a ruse too. But you get the point. If done right it forces accountability making it more enforceable.
I’d like to see this kind of thing applied to higher levels in organizations too. Accountability isn’t just for the minions.
For those of you interested in eating food, I started a little side project called “Eating in Season.” It’s a food blog. Horribly unoriginal, I know.
This will be different I promise. For starters, I’m not a single gal in Brooklyn and I am not a foodie. For kicks, I thought I would try to eat one meal a week that was entirely based on food that was in season. That doesn’t mean I’m going to be growing a garden, or foraging in the woods for nettles in the lean winter months. Instead, I’m going to try and avoid food that isn’t in season at particular times of the year.
I’m doing this to focus on the quality of food and the experience of eating more than anything else. Sure, there are other angles like the benefits of organics and the environmental impacts of the large agri-business system, but so many other people are already hoeing that row (bad pun I know).
If I ever had to do a comic strip, I’d do one called “Idea Guy.” He’s a superhero who’s really good at thinking on his feet and motivating people. He saves the day by dropping into meetings and encourages people to “Think Big!”, and not let themselves get caught up in the minutiae.
He does however, have a weakness, and it’s accountability. His archenemy Devil’s Advocate is the only person who knows this, and it’s his life mission to put Idea Guy back in “the box” where he knows he can’t do his best thinking.
Why the two can’t get along is part of their complicated back story, which I’ll try to expand on in future posts. For now, stay tuned…
Godaddy, the gargantuan ISP, makes my skin crawl. Their smarmy marketing tactics really cheapen the Internet. Okay, I find that last comment pretty laughable too. I’ve known plenty of people who used them, but I felt like they didn’t know any better.
Recently, I became a customer. I needed an SSL certificate and their price was too hard to beat. So I signed up. Setting one of these things up is non-trivial, so I had to call customer service – something I hate doing. I have to admit their service was great. They were quick and helpful on the call, but their immediate follow-through impressed me most.
Something I have noticed with them in the month I’ve been their customer is they’re always trying to close a sale. Every email, phone call, correspondence – whatever touchpoint you can think of – they’re working it.
The irony is the thing that bugged me most about Godaddy is now the singular thing I respect about them. Funny thing, it works. I have actually taken them up on a couple offers.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not shilling for them. I confess I still feel pretty dirty using them. But as a business owner, I have got to hand it to them for just having their shit wired tight on this particular tactic.
Can you generate ten, twenty ideas at the drop of a hat in any situation? Do you like ambiguity and the challenge of messy problems? Do you like to riff off of other concepts? In a group, do feel like the only person who really gives a shit? Then you’re probably an ideas person. I should know, I’m one myself.
The image I created is pretty flattering, especially to those who identify with it. However, there’s a overlooked flip side. What happens when being an ideas person goes from being an asset to a liability? Sure, the only thing worse than too many ideas is having none at all. That hardly matters since both lead to the same dead end of atrophy.
The first step is recognizing when it’s time to stop generating ideas. The second isn’t to jump right into implementation. Instead, cherry pick the ideas you like best and start testing them. How you do this is really depends on the idea. I am going to work on future posts for this very topic.
Do a little soul searching too. Ask yourself whether this ability to generate lots of ideas is really just a defense mechanism for protecting your ego from failure, rejection, and criticism?
Being good at generating a lot of ideas can get in the way of actually doing something. Over time, people will become less and less interested in hearing what you have to say.
It’s one thing to be clever, but the money is really in being resourceful. Resourceful people are good at coming up with ideas too. They just happen to be trying to figure out how to execute not just come up with concepts.
In the end, let implementation and results be the ultimate arbiter of greatness.