Let’s Talk About Faster Horses

In a quote attributed to Henry Ford (albeit with weak evidence) he famously claimed “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said ‘a faster horse.’”  Accurately quoted or not, the comment brings up an important topic: getting input from your customers. The depth and breadth of customer input necessarily varies depending on your type of business, but broadly speaking, taking steps which bring you from speculating about their needs, interests or wants, and outright asking them can be at the very least informative, and at best, transformative.

You’re most likely already getting input whether you connect the dots or not.  If people stop coming to your restaurant you’ve got a problem.  If customers consistently return a given product or product line, you have a supplier problem. If your customer stops using your software in favor of another company’s there are issues.  In our 24/7 connected world of thumb typing and “likes”, not to mention the increasingly odious Yelp, everyone gets to be a critic, so there’s a lot of separating the fly specks from the pepper to find some useful guidance.

More useful is a focused and proactive approach to your customers.  Reaching out for input can help you adjust strategy, offer valuable guidance to suppliers or partners and tighten the bonds between you and your customers.  Key is to garner information which informs the business–ahead of time.  Customers tend to “vote with their feet”, so you don’t know if there’s a problem until it’s too late—they’ve already taken action.  Why should they go through the effort to let you know why?

Getting out ahead of things is critical.  Keeping the good Mr. Ford’s quote in mind, however, just opening wide the doors and asking your customers what they want isn’t a particularly good way to go either–you need a plan, and that plan has to start with what you’re seeking to get from any input process.  That objective can be almost anything: testing a new product line, finding out how much people are willing to pay for a service, learning what kind of a menu would change a patron’s frequency, what features in a piece of software would make a user’s life less stressful, etc.  Multiple objectives can often be grouped together, but they key it to make sure they are related.

Next, consider the means of gathering the information you’re seeking.  We’ve all seen, and perhaps participated in, formal focus groups where an assortment of consumers are asked to try a product or share perceptions about a product, service or company.  These are great, but they are financially out of reach for most of us, and arguably are “too much” for most purposes.  The concept is important though: define the questions you want your customers to ponder, and ask for their responses.  This can be done in a survey form, face to face (singly or across groups), and can be a single event or an ongoing process.  Regardless, rather than leaving everything open-ended, it’s important to test your hypotheses against those questions.  Part of what you’re looking for is validation or correction of assumptions you’re using to guide your business plan.  Leaving them room for additional thoughts and input above and beyond your framing gives customers some latitude to offer up suggestions you may have not thought of.

One of the most valuable ways to engage with customers and gain insights and input is a customer advisory board or customer council.  Common in the technology world, a bargain of sorts is offered: in exchange for early access to your strategy and product/service roadmap and new product features, selected customers invest time to react, share their thoughts and provide input which can be extremely valuable in validating—and modifying—your plan.  Done quarterly, twice a year or even annually, these sessions can stop a company from heading down a rabbit hole.  Equally important, it can put the customer in a position to “put their money where their mouth is” relative to requested products or features.  Saying you want something and being willing to pay for it are often two different things as many companies have discovered over the years.

Getting your customers’ input in a structured and useful form takes work both ahead of and after the process is completed.  Managing expectations, filtering out the “faster horse”, and applying judgement to considering which input rings true are not trivial activities.  They are, however, very valuable ones and usually worth the work both in terms of information and strengthening customer relationships.

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