Watching Steve Jobs’s primary reaction — annoyance – to the iPhone 4 antenna debacle, it has been hard not to think about it in terms of the decisions Redfin needs to make every day: between going for something innovative or making incremental improvements to satisfy customer requests.
Steve Jobs is at such a far end of that spectrum that he can hardly bear to hear customer complaints for even a minute. Redfin’s engineers get caught somewhere in the middle: we try to make beautiful software, but we also spend a lot of time manually adjusting the location of listings based on users’ requests.
Business schools talk about innovation and customer focus as if the two were one and the same virtue. But mostly they’re opposites. Customer focus is a painstaking process of listening to customers and solving their problems one by one. Innovation is mostly the art of not-listening, so you can hear the creative voice inside yourself.
I’ve never met an innovative person whom I could really describe as customer-driven. The most innovative maniac I’ve ever worked with was happiest when he jabbed the air with a finger and said “F*** the customer!” — which he did all the time. He solved problems primarily for himself, and his products decisions were mostly made in terms of what was cool, not useful.
The fact that many people are now arguing that an iPhone doesn’t really have to function as a phone is the ultimate triumph of coolness over utility. But examples are everywhere: do any Redfin old-timers remember how the map used to swoop around before landing on a location? Or have you ever noticed that dandelions pop up in the background as you complete each field of Picnik’s registration form?
Both the swoop and the dandelions take time to code, and often slow the user experience. Both come from folks who believed in their products as works of art, an end, rather than as just a means to an end. It’s obvious in watching Steve Jobs talk about the iPhone that he believes it belongs in a museum as much as your left hand.
If Steve Jobs worked at Nordstrom or Zappos he couldn’t take that position. Just imagine Jobs being confronted with the canonical examples of customer service: someone ordering a pizza from Zappos’s call center or returning snow tires to Nordstrom’s clothing stores. It wouldn’t be pretty. If you turn that around, and try to think of a company driven by customer-service that is also innovative, you can’t.
Except for Amazon. How does the company that came up with the S3 or the Kindle also deliver groceries on time? I don’t know. But now that I’ve worked at Redfin for a few years, I feel sure that Amazon will be a great brand 50 years from now precisely because it has somehow struck a balance between the chutzpah of innovation and the humility of customer service. It works a lot better than being humble all the time or just being cocky.