Why the customer isn't always right - creating the next big thing

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Many of us will have heard the quote attributed to Henry Ford: If I'd asked people what they wanted, they would have said "faster horses". Of course we know that story, and the quote and what was achieved might inspire us to do the same.

That is easier said than done. I also happen to be reading "The Gift of Dyslexia" by Ron Davis, a book I can recommend for those with a connection with dyslexia. What interested me was the creativity and the different perspectives that are a characteristic of dyslexics.

The ultimate goal is to a find a solution that is universally needed but no-one else has thought of yet. If Ford's quote is accurate, talking to customers and focus groups may not provide the answer, so how do you acquire the ability to perceive the world differently and invent the next big thing?

One thing that struck me about the quote were the words "faster horses". That is the customer's description of the solution, but it is not the problem. As a mere mortal, when I see those words my first response is to see an image of a horse in my mind and then see it moving more quickly. My guess is that our minds are attuned to recognise things first (horse) and then the descriptors (faster). That response is going to limit our imagination, as we are already hooked in to trying to improve the existing solution, rather than innovating a new one.

What if our focus was switched to the adjectives rather than the nouns? (As I like a good pun, I am going to call them Un-Nouns as I am investigating Unknowns). In this case we would question the customer about that description. The conversation might go like this:

"What do you want?"

"A faster horse."

"What do you mean by 'faster'?"

"Well I need to get from town A to town B and it takes 2 days. I need to get there more quickly."

"What makes the journey slow?"

"My horse is slow.  I can't afford another one. I have to stop overnight after six hours as it runs out of energy. Or swop for another horse which is expensive. I have to stop and give it food and water. It will only gallop for a short distance then we have to trot. It might go lame which just makes the journey even longer."

What have we learned from this conversation? The first thing is that whilst the customer wants to go faster, what they really need is to complete the journey in less time. Based on the conversation a number of solutions are apparent:


  1. More top speed (faster)

  2. Greater endurance (keep going longer)

  3. Higher average speed (keep going longer)

  4. Remove overnight stay (keep going longer)

  5. Remove rest breaks (keep going longer)

  6. More reliable (keep going longer)

So the problem was not how to make a faster horse, but how to provide an alternative, reliable and low cost means of transport. The solution was mass production of the motor car.

So what is going on here? In a nutshell we are listening to the customer's wants, diagnosing the real problem and finding the needs, then using our technical skill to find a solution. The only surprise is that, given that we are the experts in our chosen field, we should so readily accept the customer's "amateur" solution to their own problem. It may be that our own desire to sell is getting in the way of listening and challenging the client, so we can deliver a truly valuable solution.

A great theory, but how do you make that happen in practise? Back to my pun - if you want to understand the customers' unknown problem,may be a good place to start is to focus on the un-nouns.

Will Abbott

Partner, Head of Business Advisory

Randall & Payne LLP



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