Faster horses

Abraham Lincoln never said, “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Albert Einstein never said, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” I suggest openly mocking your Facebook friends who post these and other misquotes, because we live in a post-Snopes world and there’s no excuse for that kind of thing anymore.

Probably not 100% historically accurate.

Here’s another classic misattribution: Henry Ford never said, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said, ‘Faster horses.'” What’s interesting about this one, though, isn’t whether the real Ford said it (the attitude embodied by the quote does seem to have cost his company auto market leadership in the 1920s, at any rate). It’s whether the “fictional Ford” was correct. Is it foolish to ask your customers what they want when you’re trying to innovate new and better products and services? This is a live question today for lawyers and law firms in a rapidly accelerating buyer’s market.

The argument in favour of shunning your customers’ input on product development is that they see only the products and services they’ve always had, and so they only ever seek incremental improvements (in Clayton Christensen’s phraseology, sustaining innovations). They’re not going to make the leap of imagination required to visualize something brand new, an improvement in kind rather than degree (disruptive innovations).

Steve Jobs is the modern ambassador for this latter approach. While the world was trying to build better BlackBerries, he asked a question nobody else had asked: What if we do away with the keyboard and make the whole device a touch screen? Asking and answering that question made Apple several kajillion dollars, so you can see why people are enamoured of it. There are other examples. James Dyson asked: Why do fans needs blades? Muhammad Yunus asked: Why not lend very small amounts of money? iPhones, bladeless fans, and microfinance are three great innovations of our times, all decidedly not generated by customer focus groups.

So how should lawyers approach this question? Should we incorporate our clients into the process of making our law firms better? That certainly seems like a good idea — I’ve been hammering away at it for years, at any rate — given that our clients will have a much clearer sense of their needs than we will, and we should be gearing everything we do to maximize the effectiveness of the outcomes we provide to them.

And yet, even in this era of unprecedented access to legal information, clients often don’t know what they don’t know. The problem or the need they perceive isn’t always the one that they should be addressing — good legal advice isn’t just about fixing problems, but is also about correctly diagnosing which problem needs to be fixed. Moreover, your client might identify the wrong solution to his problem. He might tell you that he worries constantly about his legal matter, and so what he wants is your cellphone number so he can call you any hour of the day or night to get reassurance. Is that really in anyone’s best interests, especially yours?

Here’s what I think. Our fictional, customer-scoffing Henry Ford was both right and wrong. He was right insofar as he recognized that his customers couldn’t also be his product development people. They couldn’t be expected both to buy the current thing in great quantities, and simultaneously to recognize the shortcomings of the current thing and busy themselves in proposing a replacement. Your clients represent an important resource upon which you should draw to build a better law firm, but if you wait for them to come up with better ideas, your competitors will come up with them a whole lot sooner.

But fictional Ford was also wrong, because he stopped the process of inquiry there. “Faster horses,” he harrumphed, and that was that. Here’s what fictional Ford should have done: When his customers said, “Faster horses,” he should have replied, “And what do you need them for?

The reason why people say “faster horses” is that they’re in a hurry. They want to get somewhere in less time than it currently takes them. But they’ve never conceived of a horseless carriage with an internal combustion engine, so they express their desire in terms they know and understand. Once they’ve seen an automobile, their frame of reference changes. Now they want faster automobiles, and eventually, they’ll want warmer and safer and air-conditioned and Wifi-enabled automobiles. But the point is that it was never the “horses” they wanted. It was always the “faster.”

Last week, I was told about a major courier company that conducted an extensive strategic review of the core purpose of its business. What emerged from that review process was a decision to branch out into 3-D printing. Stop and think about that for a minute. The company recognized that it wasn’t in the business of sending packages; it was in the business of helping people get something they didn’t currently have, but wanted as soon as possible. Overnight delivery, one-hour delivery — these are just faster horses, the best solution that current technology can offer. 3-D printing is the automobile: a solution you never knew you wanted until it was offered to you.

Nobody ever asked for these features.

Smart companies ask customers what outcome they want, not what vehicle they think should deliver the outcome. The outcome could be concrete — I want something here, in my hands, right now — or it could be experiential — I want to access the world’s information as quickly and easily as possible. Then the companies listen closely to the answer and ask, “And why do you want it?” And they keep asking, keep drilling down, until they come to the heart of what the customer desires. Then they ask themselves: How can we fulfill this desire better than anyone else and better than this customer imagines?

Your client says, “Give me your cell number,” but that’s not really what he wants. He wants to know the latest information about his legal matter because he’s deeply anxious about it, and he wants to be able to relieve that anxiety whenever it arises. So you tell the client that you’ve created a password-protected private page on your firm’s website where he can log in to access the status of his case and his bill any time of day or night. I promise you he’ll forget all about your cellphone, because he doesn’t really want to talk to you. You’re just the fastest horse he can think of. Give him an automobile instead.

Bring your clients into the process of making your firm better — they’re the whole reason your firm even exists, after all. But don’t ask them what you should do next, because that’s not their role. Ask them what they want and need, and why they want and need it. Keep asking and digging until you’re sure you’ve reached the bedrock motivations that drive them to consult your firm. Then create services, products, and solutions that respond to those motivations. It’s not the “horses.” It’s the “faster.”

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Gerry Riskin, chairman of Edge International Consulting, reviewed my new book, Law Is a Buyer’s Market: Building a Client-First Law Firm, and called ita must-read for firm leaders and anyone else who has a concern about the future of the legal profession.” For more information, other reviews, and a link to purchase, please visit Law21’s Books page.



2 Comments

  1. Blair Botsford

    Very well said and very “right brained”. Unfortunately, many lawyers are still not in their right mind, so to speak, nor do they wish to be. Big picture conceptual thinking is too artsy and too feminine. Lawyers have turned to analytics as a solitary crutch to try to muscle through growing problems in the profession. However, I believe less may actually more and agree that talking to clients, without assumption or bias, to learn what they truly want (e.g. “faster” not “horses”), so you can than understand the idea and design the solution or solutions. There may be more than one way to satisfy clients. Some will be right for certain firms/lawyers and other options will work better elsewhere.

    You are preaching to the choir here. Too bad some of our colleagues are tone deaf.

  2. George C. Brown

    Well stated as always, Jordan. Along these lines, Glen Tecker of Tecker International says (and I paraphrase) to never ask people what they need. They don’t know. Instead, ask them what problems they are having for which they are getting no help. That they can tell you.


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