Don’t learn the wrong lesson from Henry Ford
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Don’t learn the wrong lesson from Henry Ford

Original Title: Listen to your customers, but don't listen to your customers
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Published January 22nd, 2021
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Updated March 18, 2021
 
"If I'd listened to my customers I'd have given them a faster horse." — Henry Ford
 
I HATE that quote and I hear it from founders all the time.
 
I hate it because it's so often misused as a reason to not listen to customer and to only "go by your gut". When a founder says it, I think it's a cop-out because talking (let alone listening) to real people is hard and uncomfortable.
 
"But users don't know what they want. If I just did what they asked I'd have an unusable mess." — Every founder / product person ever
 
The thing is users do know what they want, they just don't know how to explain it*. What they need is a solution to a pain they perceive. It's your job to figure that pain out and if it matters**.

Evidence is Everywhere

What do the two quotes above have in common? They both are talking about two types of customer evidence. Respectively, evidence there is demand and evidence of product friction.
 
The first quote is saying there is demand for something better. But the customer is talking in terms of what they know (which is fine, it's your job to dream of the future). This is great market research, it can tell you there is a gap in the market, but Ford is right, it can't tell you how to successfully fill the gap.
 
The second is saying, "Hey I like your product, I'm trying to make it work for me, but it won't let me do X, please make it do X" (I'm paraphrasing). This is fantastic evidence because;
A) They care enough about your product to let you know it's not working for them, which is evidence of product demand, and
B) It opens the door to talk to them!
 
The point is if you pause and listen to your customers, you'll find they are telling you a lot of useful things. Sometimes it can be painful to hear, or sometimes it's hard to ask, or even get their attention. But evidence is everywhere.
 
Your customers are telling you a lot of useful things, it's up to you to listen to them.
 
But what about when you're starting out?

When you lack evidence, go by your gut, but when you get evidence check your bias at the door

 
There are all sorts of "factions" on how you should start a business. Build a large audience for a newsletter, presell to 10 people, etc. Their goal is to decrease the risk at the beginning. But the truth is founders get a vision and build ALL the time without collecting much evidence. You can even argue that validation before a product isn't possible. So I'm going assume you've built something on "gut feeling". Awesome.
 
But your gut feeling will only get you so far in the market.
 
It's not likely you've built the next instant hit that doesn't need any data (aka evidence) to grow, let alone to accelerate out of the slow SaaS ramp of death. Eventually you're going to need to talk to people. There are many ways to do it:
 
  • Call your customers 😱
  • Email your customers
  • Survey your customers
  • Look at usage metrics
  • Look at what your customers are saying about you online
  • Look at what your competitions customers are saying
 
This essay is not on how to talk to them, it's just that, you need to talk to customers. Every business does. You might think you already do, and you may! But I bet you don't do it enough. I implore you to check your biases (aka gut feelings) at the door and go talk to your customers.
 
Still not convinced you need to talk to your customers?

Common reasons excuses founders use to not talk to customers

I've in fact said a few of these myself or parroted others who did. And the truth is they're all just a pile of excuses not to listen to your customers.
 

Customers don't know what they want

Counterpoint: A) that's not always true and B) that's why they hired you, to help them, so listen to them and help them.
 

If I did what they wanted I'd have an awful user experience

Counterpoint: That's why they hired you, so listen to them, design something better that meets their needs.
 

A customer can't tell me what I know about the market

Counterpoint: They bought your software so they are your market, listen to them and figure out why they think they fit.
 

We're ahead of the market, customers don't get it yet

Counterpoint: Stop lying to yourself. This is rarely true. If it is you better A) have a lot of money and time to weather it out or B) listen to them and find a profitable path towards the future while they catch up.
 

I can't do everything I'm asked to do

Counterpoint: No one is asking you to everything your customers ask. I just want you to listen to them. Then gather all that glorious evidence (aka data), synthesize it, and find the gems that make sense for your product. Got too much, use a prioritization mechanism like RICE or just go by your gut. 😂
 

But talking to customers is hard/scary/nerve wracking!

Counterpoint: Don't talk to them, listen to them. Ask them to talk about themselves and their problems, you'll learn a ton and make a friend. They're interested in what you have to say, after you listen to them.
 

Conclusion (Use your gut, then go get data)

 
Yes, start with your gut, then double down on finding out which parts resonated with your customers. You'll only find out what truly resonates if you listen to them and they'll love you for it.
 

Footnotes

* Listening to customers is not blindly doing what they said
** Not all pains will matter to your business for a variety of reasons (not big enough, wrong direction, etc.)
 
 
Copyright © 2021, Bryan Smith, All Rights Reserved