Henry Ford was one of the world’s great innovators and a quotable gentleman at that, particularly in the realms of business and innovation. Perhaps the most famous quote attributed to Ford is this: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
While there's no real proof Ford ever said this, the words are still applied to him as proof that true innovation is done without customer input. But, even if one of the most successful businessmen in American history had said it, it wouldn't make the maxim any more applicable.
In fact, customers would probably have told Ford exactly what they wanted -- specifically, a faster mode of transportation. They might not have mentioned the need for a combustion engine, but that's part of the art and science of understanding customer feedback.
While your customers may not know the form factors available to them (that’s where you as a business can innovate), they often understand their problems, or can, at minimum, communicate enough information so that you can use customer feedback appropriately to grow your business. Here’s how.
Related: A History of Henry Ford
Ask good questions.
Often, customers know what they want, but don’t know how to articulate it. So, ask specific questions that allow you to glean insights to use for your innovation. For example, using multiple-choice questions (with an option for "other" and space to write in an answer) is a good way to survey your customers. Studies show that giving a customer too many choices often nets you poor feedback, but it's also important to give them the opportunity to bring up something you haven't anticipated.
You should also ask about their personal or business problems. If you are selling and innovating with technology for small businesses, don’t ask features-based questions, because most small business customers aren’t thinking about technology features. They are trying to make more money, save time, save costs, etc. So, ask questions around their problems and then bridge the gap with your innovation -- much like Ford did.
Study behavior and numbers.
Numbers and behavior are more reliable feedback indicators than words alone. If your customers say they love a product in green, but they keep buying blue, stick with the blue. Be relentless in studying your data and behaviors to make sure that their words match their actions.
Beware of the vocal minority.
While it’s important to look at feedback, including from online channels and customer service, you need to delve into who is giving that feedback. For example, if you are getting posts about a problem, make it's a real problem. If it doesn't exist, ignore it.
The same goes for wants. A handful of people may be squeaky wheels about a personal want, but that doesn’t mean the broader base of customers wants it, so do more research.
Also, check for minions. Are the same group of people always asking for something or complaining together? If so, they may be just a co-dependent group of trolls. If you are seeing different customers giving feedback and input around the same issues, that is more likely to be reliable than many posts or asks from the same group of people. The exception to this is when the group is considered influential among your customer base.
It's usually a good trick to solicit your feedback through private polls instead of public ones so your community isn’t swayed by the vocal minority.
Sample a relevant group.
Reach out to your best existing and desired target customers to get a broader scope of feedback. If you aren’t sure what your customers think, ask a meaningful number of them. Shockingly, customers are more likely to give you feedback if you actually ask them (and if they feel like offering it will ultimately benefit them). But, make sure that they are truly buyers -- if responders aren't going to buy your product, their responses don't help you or them.