Customers Are So Annoying…

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.


  • Daniel Howard

    Glenn, I'm a little disappointed, because I like Redfin and its customer focus so much: solving customers problems IS innovation! Need a better way to buy and sell houses? Invent Redfin! Need a better way to clean up the inaccurate data in the listings database? Aha, an opportunity to develop improved tools or processes!

    I think the “problem” is that people tend to sort into types like “engineer” or “customer service” and especially in an organization of any size these roles become segregated. In reality, they're just different points along a spectrum: the front-line techs can help identify and explain what the customers need, and they can work with the designers and engineers to improve the site such that the organization can get by with fewer, better techs.

    Its important to bang out new features, what you might call “innovation” but finding ways to improve the customer experience is innovative, too.

    Necessity being the mother of invention, knowing what your customers need drives innovation.

    From this perspective, my favorite work environments have been where, as a Junior SysAdmin who couldn't help much during an outage, I could don a pair of earphones and help answer a tide of customer calls, apologizing and explaining that we were working to get things back up and running, or in other organizations, where individual team members felt empowered to fix what was broken by contributing to internal tools or hashing out improved process with management.

    I bet if you look at it a bit more you'll see this “problem” of customers “distracting” you from “innovation” is possibly one of your _greatest opportunities_ . . . but, its your company! Good luck!!


    • GlennKelman

      Well Daniel, Redfin isn't my company. I'm the CEO, not the sole owner.
      And hopefully you know us all well enough to feel sure we'll never abandon our customer focus.
      I do think there are speculative or novel features that customers don't always ask you for, and the types of folks to champion those are more inward-looking. But for the most part, I agree with you.

  • Michael

    I agree that innovation and customer service are not the same thing. As you say, Glenn, one involves looking inward; the other outward. It's the classic Peter Keating/Howard Rourk debate from Ayn Ran's The Fountainhead. The populist (Keating) who tries to impress everyone ends up producing trash while the dedicated architect (Rourk) who is guided only by his own firey passion saves the day.

    The danger you run into with listening too much to customers is that you are likely to keep making incremental improvements towards a local maximum. The big leaps forward, the ones that can bring you to a global maximum, require innovation, inspiration, and generally, ignoring the customer. The best companies do both.

    I think you can see this outside of Amazon, although it's rare and wonderful. IDEO and Stanford's design school both start the design process by observing and understanding the users. Google has an obsession with usability (named Marissa Mayer) while they take giant innovative steps. Obama's web campaign was hugely innovative and they had a heavily “customer-oriented” approach (they did tons of AB testing).

  • GlennKelman

    Google is another good example Michael, but I don't think they're as obsessive about refining the customer experience as Amazon is. 2.0 and 3.0 products at Google sometimes seem rare, with some obvious exceptions like the search algorithms…

  • Brian Wilson

    The principle-alone of Apple's sense of entitlement is enough for me to never consider an iPhone. “Just don't hold it that way” works for a small, up-and-coming company with a great product or two but it no longer is cute when you are a market-leader.

    • GlennKelman

      Strangely it has made me not want to own an iPhone 4, but an iPhone 3GS with iOS 4 is wonderful!

  • Nils

    Absolutely love this Glenn

  • Cognient

    Glenn, your comments regarding Steve Jobs and Apple are simply ridiculous. Apple is widely known for having excellent customer service. And they make products with great features that people love. iPhone 4 included.

    And so does Redfin. I switched away from zip realty too redfin because the feature set on redfin was more robust. The same reason I've moved to some of apples products.

    Sent from my IPad

    • GlennKelman

      I love Apple's products Cognient, and its retail execution is excellent: you are greeted the moment you walk into an Apple store, no matter how busy it may be. But I don't think Steve Jobs himself feels humbled by his commitment to the customer in the way, say, that Tony Hsieh does, and for good reason: he marches to the beat of his own drummer. This is why his keynotes are dazzling, but his responses to minor customer-service problems seem to lack the empathy everyone is hoping for from him. And Apple's commitment to its own way of doing things often gets in the way of customer service. Haven't you ever thought that it was odd that no one at an Apple store knows when the next shipment of iPads or iPhones is due in? Apple sends the store a box, and whatever's inside is what the store sells… it's hard to call that customer-driven. It's product-driven.

  • Michael Daly

    Right on, Glenn!

    I was hoping for both an improved phone and improved service with another provider (AT&T is horrendous in NY).
    The fact that the Phone went from bad to worse from the 3G(S) to the new 4 AND there are no other carrier choices are both hugely disappointing to me.

    As soon as we have the Redfin Droid app, my iDrop is going to the “museum”.

  • galenward

    Glenn, I'm not sure I would describe a swooping map or dandelions sprouting as innovative. They're flourishes. The predominance of Apple's innovations are not flourishes: they're innovations around usability and functionality.

    In fact, the best thing about Apple is that flourishes almost exclusively serve to make the product work better – not to slow down the product or merely add prettiness.

    • GlennKelman

      A good distinction between flourish and functionality, and I agree that the latter type of innovation is more fundamental, but the two seem to go together Galen: flourishes to me are indicative of an artisanal approach to product development favored by people building products for themselves rather than simply ticking off customer requirements. Surely you would agree that Redfin's map-based real estate search or Picnik's browser-based photo editing are examples of the more fundamental type of innovation you had in mind?

      • galenward

        Absolutely – Redfin and Estately's map-based real estate search and Picnik's browser-based photo editing are absolutely examples of more fundamental type of innovation.

        • GlennKelman

          Touche! To claim an innovation, you just have to do it first…

          • galenward


            I think Estately can claim a few map-related innovations. We have a few more coming soon too! :)