Grant Leboff….and the faster horse

About a year ago Debenham’s asked their customers to rank 100 things they were thinking of doing, in order of preference. Rooted at the bottom of the list was “Develop a mobile app”. Well Debenham’s decided to ignore their customers and developed an App anyway…….60,000 of them have now been downloaded and the resultant sales are already worth £2.5m.

This reminded me of the famous Henry Ford quote:

“If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse’.” The moral supposedly being that it is daft to ask customers what they want because they can’t possibly know…….they can’t imagine a product or service that is anything other than a slight improvement on the ones they already have.

Well I love the quote, but it is easy to draw the wrong conclusion from it.

It is often said that you should not ask customers what they want, because, like Henry Ford’s customers, they will come up with a dull, limiting, answer.

If we listen to Grant Leboff though we can see that what we really need to do is understand what the customer’s problem is…..what is it they are looking for from a product or service? Did Henry Ford’s customers know what problem they wanted to solve? Of course they did – they wanted to be able to get from A to B faster. As Roger L. Cauvin says (in his Product Decisions Blog) “If we ask them what they “want”, they are likely to think of solutions and short-circuit the all-important understanding of the problems they face.”

In the world of supported housing and housing related support we have spent the last 10 years (the Supporting People era) letting our customers come up with solutions…..prescriptive eligibility criteria; definitions of a unit of support or an hour of support; direct payments; personalisation…… Providers have become very passive; waiting to check the next edition of Inside Housing or hoping for news of the next tender at a providers’ forum. What we need to do is gain a better understanding of (and insight into) what is motivating our customers to buy a service – what is the problem they want to solve?

 It’s as if we’ve had 10 years with just one customer (the local authority) who has £1.5bn worth of SP ‘gift vouchers’ to spend….on SP services. We have lost our way as providers – spending all our time trying to make our ‘horses faster’ for the only show in town. Whilst the end of SP and the cuts in public spending are undoubtedly a challenge to our existing services, we have to see them as a great opportunity to draw a line and start again.

What are the problems that society, communities, groups of individuals and individuals have that our teams of well trained and highly motivated colleagues could help solve? That’s the question we should be asking….and then we should be coming up with creative solutions that excite and engage our customers.

In Bromford Support we’ve started this process with our You Can…fund – which allows teams to come up with innovative new ways of working that we will fund ourselves to see if they work. We’ve also held an Apprentice style event to encourage front line colleagues to come up new services to address a problem they know their local stakeholders are having. Weaning ourselves off a ‘command and control’, one size fits all commissioning model and into a new world of opportunity…and risk…won’t be easy but we are relishing the challenge.


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