“People can have the Model T in any color – so long as it’s black.”
Last week I wrote about the unique feature of markets and the business world to be completely unpredictable. Nobody knows what the next big craze is going to be, and that’s the awesome power of markets that keeps us innovating. Some of the most famous innovators in recent history have noted that building a successful product isn’t about listening to what customers want, but rather showing them what they should want.
With this mentality in mind, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that customers don’t really know what they want and that they should be led around like cattle, from one innovation to the next. This isn’t the case, though. In fact, many times, giving customers the freedom to choose and the simplicity that comes with it is actually the next big thing nobody sees coming.
The idea of giving customers plenty of freedom in a hard-product market doesn’t seem too crazy. People like to choose between a white and black iPhone, with plenty of crazy cases that they can put on it to make it look even different. You can add stickers to your car to give it flames, or leave it completely clean and spotless. Giving freedom after the product has been developed allows for new products to be developed to offer even more choice.
But what about in a service industry? Or an industry where turnaround times are key to profits? If customers are caught falling victim to too much choice or too many decisions, they can not only hold up the service, but hold up other customers behind them, creating a snowball effect. Surely, in this case, customers have to be told what to do.
Take airlines as an example. If customers are given their own choice as to where to sit, they’ll spend a precious few more seconds than they otherwise would looking around to find a seat that is just right for them. Meanwhile, other customers behind them will be slowed down by the next person in front of them. This ends up adding a few extra minutes to the flight overall, slowing down the turnaround time for the airline, and ultimately hurting profits. Surely the customers have to be told where to sit and when to board.
Actually not. While studies have been done to show what the fastest assigned-seat boarding system is, the one system that seems most unlikely to work tends to work best. An open seating system, like the one used by Southwest Airlines, where customers board in groups and are allowed to choose any seats that are open, seems to be the fastest way of boarding a plane. Not only is it incredibly popular with customers, it is the fastest way of boarding the plane.
It may be because customers know there are other people behind them and are thereby pressured to find a seat as quickly as possible, or it may be because they are motivated to find a seat as quickly as possible before somebody else takes the same seat, but for whatever reason, freedom works in this case. It also removes the complicated factor of assigning seat numbers to people who haven’t yet selected a seat.
Sometimes it takes trial and error to figure out what your customers want, but at the end of the day, you have to afford them some freedom to show you what they want. What may make sense to you, the entrepreneur, may not make sense to the paying customer.
Although we may be tempted to completely into the mindset of Henry Ford and Steve Jobs, showing consumers what they should want, we need to keep in mind that sometimes the undirected choices of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of customers may be smarter than our best ideas.