“By the time your customers tell you they want something, it’s too late.” – Carol Bartz, former CEO of Autodesk.
You don’t necessarily have to listen to what your customers tell you they want to run a customer-centric business. As Steve alludes to in his recent post about Mickey Drexler, there is a debate floating around about whether you should do as Steve Jobs did, and “ignore the customer,” or you should do as others, such as Drexler do, and center the entire business on the customer.
I think it’s a false dichotomy. I think that you can have a totally customer-centric business and not listen to your customers at the same time.
Customers don’t live in your world. The average customer isn’t going to think five or ten years down the road in your industry. They’re not going to be thinking about how changes in all of the related industries are going to alter the way your product is going to have to work. Your customer is thinking 6-12 months into the future. Specifically: will this thing be useful to me over the next year?
If you set your company or product direction based on that kind of short term, rather than long term guidance, then you’ll be unprepared for changes in the market when they arrive.
However, you can absolutely listen to your customer’s needs with the current product. You can incorporate changes selectively based on what you know will be relevant in the future. And importantly, you can make serving their needs the central focus of your company. But remember that they don’t necessarily know what they want in the future, just what they want now.