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What Steve Jobs Taught Me About Customer Feedback

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I came across this quote while reviewing the relationship Learnium has with its customers (disclaimer — I am the CEO of Learnium). I was particularly interested in uncovering the best principles for dealing with user feedback and Steve Job’s statement stuck out like a sore thumb. How could a man who built a company known for its excellent relationship with customers be so … against customers?

I had to better understand the context of the statement to reconcile it with my own thoughts, so I began researching. The quote first appeared in an interview with Business Week in 1998:

Business Week: Did you do consumer research on the iMac when you were developing it? Steve Jobs: No. We have a lot of customers, and we have a lot of research into our installed base. We also watch industry trends pretty carefully. But in the end, for something this complicated, it’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why a lot of people at Apple get paid a lot of money, because they’re supposed to be on top of these things.

Turns out Jobs was not bashing the importance of customers after all. His answer is nuanced and contains a couple of insights.

First of all, Jobs was specifically asked about the process behind the first version of the iMac. He has expressed similar thoughts about the early development of other iProducts, which spread the misconception that Apple tends not to care or listen to its customers. We know this is not how the company works since later versions of the iProducts improve based on consumer feedback.

The biggest insight for me is that, despite carefully listening to what people are saying about its products, Apple doesn’t always believe that the suggestions of customers are the best way to solve a problem. In his answer, Steve Jobs spells out the Apple process: 

  1. monitor trends, perform research and speak with customers to spot fundamental problems, and 
  2. hire the best available talent to come up with a solution.

These insights made me appreciate the quote even more. They also influenced the way Learnium deals with customer feedback in two ways. Lets take them in turn.

Understand the problem

When you start looking at a problem and it seems really simple, you don’t really understand the complexity of the problem. Then you get into the problem, and you see that it’s really complicated, and you come up with all these convoluted solutions. That’s sort of the middle, and that’s where most people stop… But the really great person will keep on going and find the key, the underlying principle of the problem — and come up with an elegant, really beautiful solution that works. — Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs understood the importance of getting to the root of the problem. Insane focus, intuition and research allowed Jobs to understand challenges and come up with beautiful solutions. Alongside research and trend monitoring, customer feedback is a key source for market insight. How much a company should rely on one source over another is up for debate. Irrespective of your choice, here are a few things to take into account when exploring the user needs.

Define the problem

People often fall in love with an idea and start developing a product around it. However, as any good sales person can attest, selling a product that doesn’t address a real problem is tough, if not impossible. Value is created by solving problems. This is why companies should spend time understanding the customers needs.

Personally, I think users should be involved in the process. It’s rare that the target customer is also the very team that builds the product. Most companies either build products for other people or are at a stage where the majority of its users are external. The end customers are more likely to understand the problem. They can speak at length about the intricacies of the matter, the impact on their business and so on. This is valuable information that complements other forms of research.

Be aware of the language barrier

Customer feedback is not always straightforward. It can contain unfamiliar terminology, omit non-obvious aspects and even seem illogical. This happens all the time because of the nature of your business vs the nature of their business. It helps to have an ex-customer in your team who can act as a translator between you and the clients.

Credit to BadHTML

Remember — the first step before you take any actions is to understand the customer problem. Summarising the message back is a little trick I like to use to uncover and clarify the underlying problem behind any user request:

Thank you for the feedback John. Before I share this with the team I want to make sure I correctly understand the problems you are facing: (1) …, (2) …, (3) …. Is this correct or do you want to make amendments?

Take bias into account

Biases are a real danger when conducting market research. They come in many shapes and sizes. For example, people tend to focus on the negative rather than the positive; our brains are subjective and put more emphasis on our needs than on someone else’s needs; the status quo limits the range of possibilities one can imagine; etc.

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. — Henry Ford

Steve Jobs and Henry Ford realised that people are often anchored in a specific context, which prevents them from articulating their problems. To be able to come up with innovative solutions, one has to cross-examine claims and go back to basic principles.

Communicate effectively

A master communicator, Jobs understood very well that every interaction with the users is an opportunity to awe them. At Learnium we look at the way we deal with customer feedback as an integral part of the user experience. Here are a few of our guiding principles. They are easy to adopt and show customers that their opinions matter.

See customer feedback as an opportunity

Credit to Yiftee

It’s hard to picture customer feedback as an opportunity when dealing with long lists of feature requests and frustrated customers. And yet, this is how people show their attachment to your product. By large, users only invest time in products and services that address their needs or wants. From this perspective, customer feedback represents an opportunity to improve the product and gain advocates.

Give users a way to contact you

People tend to cover their ears to avoid criticism. For a company though, this is a flawed strategy. When you turn off the feedback you literally say no to improving. You need to give users ways to contact you.

Depending on the nature of your business, there are many channels to choose from. As an example, users can contact Learnium via email, raise tickets from within the app and start chat sessions. We make our phone number available, run surveys and speak to people face to face.

Communicate clearly and openly

Users that submit requests want to know that their issues are dealt with. Here are a few fundamental principles that show good will and strengthen rapport.

First, acknowledge the receipt of the message as quickly as possible. Many support systems automate the acknowledgment process, so this can be an easy win.

Second, minimise customer uncertainty. Frustration rises naturally when the user doesn’t know what’s happening. Informing the customer of the process and its timeframe is a good way to address some of the uncertainty. Even a simple message like the one below is enough to show that things are moving forward:

I will discuss your message with my team on Tuesday when we have our weekly meetings. I’ll get back to you on Wednesday with more info on the next steps.

Third, handle queries in a timely fashion. If you can quickly address an issue, do it. Your customers will appreciate it. Unfortunately we know that most user tickets need far more time to be processed. The best thing to do in this case is to notify the user with a timeframe.

Finally, don’t forget to keep the customer up to date on progress. Communicate regularly as the ticket moves along the pipeline and provide estimates of completion date.

Conclusion

Jobs was a genius of his craft, an excellent communicator with an innate sense for uncovering the basic problems humans face.

He taught me that value is created by solving hard challenges. Customer feedback can reveal the underlying problem and be used to create beautiful solutions. Confusing, incomplete and sometimes misleading, user input is difficult to handle properly. Effective communication skills are essential to cross this chasm and really understand the problem.

At Learnium we strive to provide a great customer experience by effectively handling user feedback. We see user input as an invaluable source of knowledge and as an opportunity to better serve our customers.

Credits for the images in this article go to BadHTML and Yiftee.

Robert Dragan is the CEO of Learnium, a social learning platform that connects students and teachers at university or college. To receive updates from the company please subscribe to the Learnium newsletter.