Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
This quote is often cited when challenging the importance of customer feedback and market research. As is what Steve Jobs said about people not knowing what they want. To a large extent, both of those legendary businessmen are correct. In fact, science is inclined to agree. Studies have shown that most of our decisions are made at the subconscious level, without us realizing what’s driving our opinions and preferences. So, if people don’t know what they want or why they do what they do, it’s not worth asking. Right?
As a customer insight professional and enthusiast, it’s no surprise that I have a “yeah, but…” response. My subjective personal thoughts aside, I genuinely and objectively believe there is, has been, and will always be value to hearing directly from customers. It’s just a matter of what we ask, why we ask it, and how it’s applied.
Henry Ford and Steve Jobs were generational innovators. Beyond generational. Their ideas and influences have shaped the course of human history. So, for them, market research was not part of the gameplan. But, what about the diner serving meals to the first Ford employees? They probably cared to hear how the food and service was. And the design teams at Apple likely gave feedback to suppliers about which tools were helpful and which needed improving. This is a key point of distinction; establishing why an action is taken. The diner and tool suppliers weren’t looking to change the world. They were looking to offer the best possible products, services, and experiences; all while exceeding expectations and evolving their brand.
Market research and customer feedback may not be an ingredient for groundbreaking inspiration. But listening to and understanding people are necessary, especially when competing against brands who offer the same type of products, services, or experiences. Furthermore, building authentic relationships and delivering on demand for personalization require deep knowledge of the individuals behind the purchases. So, in this sense, market research isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a must.
As for the subconscious decision drivers that fly under our mental radar, this is where what we ask takes center stage. We probably won’t learn much if jump directly into a question like, “Why did you purchase Brand-A instead of Brand-B?” That is taking a logic-based approach to what we know is an emotionally driven behavior.
Instead, we leverage customer feedback to support deductive reasoning. Similar to how algorithms present ads for products a person might like based on other purchases, we seek to understand the person as a whole and identify trends they may not be consciously aware of. Their habits and preferences in one area can shed light on their habits and preferences in another. But it’s up to us to ask the right questions in the right way to capture these deductive insights. By exploring areas that may not directly relate to our brands, such as personality traits or what new hobbies they’ve picked up over the past year, we can uncover characteristics that do relate to our brands.
Then, there’s the matter of how market research and customer feedback findings are applied within our businesses. The power of these data-driven insights is in the clarity, wisdom, and knowledge they provide. We’re able to make smarter, more confident decisions than we would going on instinct alone. We’re able to challenge our biases and test our hypotheses before acting. We’re not looking to find the next world-changing innovation with one feedback survey. Rather, piece by piece, we’re painting the bigger picture. We’re building detailed customer personas. We’re mapping the competitive landscape and dropping a pin on our current positioning. Without these elements, we’d be operating on assumptions and best guesses. However, with these elements, we’re able to craft the narrative of today which equips us to write the chapter of tomorrow. This is where those moments of innovation and inspiration are realized.
I feel no shame in saying I’m neither Henry Ford nor Steve Jobs. I don’t foresee the next Model-T or iPhone coming out of my office. But I do see myself empowering brands to surprise and delight their audiences. I do see the potential for developing one-of-a-kind products, services, and experiences. I do see opportunities to strengthen brand relationships, increase brand loyalty, and evolve a brand’s identity to stay relevant in an ever-changing world. The way I see myself doing all that is by gathering strategic customer insights and applying them in impactful ways.
So, as I said at the beginning, I genuinely believe there is, has been, and will always be value in hearing directly from customers. It’s just a matter of taking the right approach for what we ask, why we ask it, and how it will be applied.