Change can be a painful thing.
The critics were not silent. It has no floppy drive, they howled! How could anyone be so stupid as to forget something like that? How will people move their files? What will they do? How will we ever live without that drive? THE WORLD WILL END!
Well, the world didn’t end. Apple was ahead of the curve and decided to push forward with the change, even if it upset some customers.
Companies that lead need to be willing to say that occasional growing pains are ok. If a company only listens to what customers think they need, it won’t be able to innovate. As Henry Ford said, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean you can just be a dick about it. You’ve got to explain to people what’s happening. This is where trust and communication are key. If you have a conversation with your customers, they know where you’re coming from. They know what you stand for and why you make the decisions you make.
For example, you may not always agree with our UI choices but the design decision posts here at SvN hopefully give you the context to understand why we make the choices we make. We’ve found this sort of conversation along with the interaction at our forums goes a long way in building rapport and confidence. Once customers know and understand you, they’re a lot more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt — even if what you’re doing seems counterintuitive at first.
You’ve also got to be willing to lose people occasionally. Some people need what they need. If you simply had to have a floppy drive, then that new iMac was no good for you. You can’t be all things to all people.
Related: Why Is It So Hard For Innovators to Keep It Simple? discusses Jason’s recent talk at BIF-3 — “If you try to make everyone happy with your products, you end up with mediocrity.” — and offers up more examples of opinionated companies.
The worst thing a CEO or the head of engineering can do is to overreact whenever a customer, even an important customer, demands a new feature or insists on a new service—especially if that new feature or service risks cluttering the simplicity of the offering. In other words, one of the most important jobs of a leader or an entrepreneur is knowing when to say no—even to important constituencies.
How Southwest and ING go against the grain…
The folks at Southwest Airlines, the great innovators in the sky, really get this point. Back in September, Southwest announced that it was going to retain its controversial policy of not assigning specific seats to passengers. Instead, it was going to make minor adjustments in its first-come, first-served policy to cut down on mad rushes at the gate. The media coverage was enormous. And what was interesting was how eager newspapers were to find passengers who hated Southwest’s open-seating policy and were disappointed that the airline didn’t adopt a more conventional (and complicated) process.
But this negative reaction wasn’t a sign of problems, as many of the articles suggested. It was a sign of strength. Great brands, by definition, aren’t designed to appeal to everyone. Not all customers are created equal—and in the case of Southwest Airlines, customers who value more of the amenities, policies, and procedures of the legacy carriers aren’t ever going to be passionate about Southwest. Customers who are passionate about Southwest don’t just value the low fares that open seating supports, but have come to expect and enjoy the organized chaos that the experience involves. One test of how committed a company is to keeping its offering distinctive and simple is how fearless it is about ignoring (even offending) vocal customers whose needs don’t conform to the core mission.
Arkadi Kuhlmann, founder and CEO of ING Direct, the company that has almost single-handedly made Internet savings a mainstream sensation, has built the fastest-growing bank in the United States around that same attitude. Everything about the ING Direct experience is absurdly simple. The bank offers a few savings accounts, a handful of certificates of deposit, maybe 10 different mutual funds. And that’s it. Credit cards? No way. Online brokerage (now that it has five million Internet-based customers)? Perish the thought.
ING Direct even simplifies the kinds of customers with whom it does business. The bank has no deposit minimums. (You can literally open an account with one dollar.) But it has unofficial deposit maximums. You want to open an account with a million dollars? Please find another bank. “Rich Americans are used to platinum cards, special services,” Kuhlmann told me. “The last thing we want in this bank is to have rich people making special demands. We treat everybody the same, which is how we keep things simple.”
That kind of attitude doesn’t always make you popular—but it’s the edgy attitude required to make you successful.