Henry Ford’s Faster Horse

Henry Ford is quoted as saying “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse’.”  That isn’t to say you ignore your customer feedback but that you need to ask the right questions.  Find out their needs, not just their wants.

Many businesses set out with an idea and try to sell it – to create a new market – and that’s good.  It leads to progress (with the caveat, of course, that newer isn’t always better).  A few visionaries saw that the emerging technologies at the end of the 19th century could lead to a new mode of transport – I doubt many saw the car as totally replacing the horse in almost in areas of transport but they saw potential.  They developed ideas that have evolved into what we have today, and which will continue to evolve until somebody sees a totally new departure.  Henry Ford’s creativity was in seeing a niche market as one for the masses.

Electronic computers are a newer development.  There are the now well known developments at Bletchley Park during World War 2; well known now but kept top secret for many years as development progressed elsewhere.  They were initially conceived as large and expensive, a resource for large corporations and government, and far too expensive for mass use.  There is an apocryphal quote from Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, that the word will only need five computers – probably not uttered as is often quoted but, whilst five may not be accurate, the sentiment that numbers would be low is.  Early computers were expensive and needed a lot of maintenance.  [It is said that an early computer technician retrieving a dead moth shorting out a circuit in one (the Harvard University Mark II Aiken Relay Calculator) is the origin of the term “bug”.]  As electronic technology evolved, replacing valves with transistors which have continued to shrink in size onto integrated circuits, computing power has increases as cost has decreased.  Consider the computing power aboard Apollo 11 when it went to the moon – the AGC (Apollo Guidance Computer) had 2kb of RAM, 32kb of ROM and ran at 1.024MHz – look up the spec of the computer your using!

But, in 1970, who among us would need our own computer?   We had log books and slide rules if we really needed to calculate; electronic calculators started to become popular (and not confined to large businesses or research departments.  I recall buying my first one (a Sinclair Scientific) in 1974 and, when I started working for Rolls Royce that year, it was the only electronic calculator in an R&D department with over 50 staff.  Ten years later, I was working in a company that had its own IBM mainframe computer on-site, with a back-up system in the USA (accessible via a leased land-line).  It was for data processing and we had dumb terminals to access it – the first desktop PC arrived in 1986 and was to be used for word processing.  We take it for granted now but it was a visionary step to convert a sophisticated, high speed calculator into a glorified typewriter.  It changed the way we worked; it changed the working lives of secretaries and pool typists (the latter having all but disappeared as a job).  Most of us do our own typing nowadays on our desktops, laptops and tablets but who among us would have actually wanted any of these tools just 30 years ago.

So, back to the initial topic, focus on customer needs and not just wants.  That doesn’t always mean the hard sell.  I’m not a great fan of businesses that see the salesman as the key player – if the salesman has to work long and hard each time to sell a product or service then it might be time to re-evaluate that product or service.  New markets can mean hard work but marketing is not the same as selling.  Marketing is the broader brush approach, making yourself and your offerings known – selling is closing each individual deal.  If the marking is right for the market, selling, whilst not wishing to detract from the skills and competences still needed, is much more straightforward.

Study your customers, find out what they’re doing: study, analyse and think!

(Posted as a blog 9th September 2012)