Riding in the back seat

When I hear the phrase I imagine executives being chauffeured endlessly around the same block by their clients, commented an associate the other day. I can't help it. Why should the customers be the ones doing all the driving? And where in the heck are we going? Besides, it makes me motion sick to ride in the back. I want to do some of the steering. My peevish friend had a point. Of course it is absolutely

When I hear the phrase ‘customer-driven,’ I imagine executives being chauffeured endlessly around the same block by their clients,” commented an associate the other day. “I can't help it. Why should the customers be the ones doing all the driving? And where in the heck are we going? Besides, it makes me motion sick to ride in the back. I want to do some of the steering.”

My peevish friend had a point. Of course it is absolutely critical to understand our customers' businesses, but it is quite a different matter to expect customers to “drive” us to the solutions we hope to sell back to them. In fact, perhaps we've taken the whole notion of being customer-driven too far. If everyone is out polling their customers for direction, we're all going to end up in the same place.

About five years ago, Bob Lutz, then Chrysler vice chairman, was credited with asking many of the same nagging questions about the customer-driven concept. More than one automotive magazine back then quoted Lutz as saying, “We've spent too much time listening to the customer. We've been foisting off on them perhaps the most critical responsibility we have as car people: coming up with a vision for what future products should be. The customer is usually just a rearview mirror. He can tell you what he likes among the choices already out there. But when it comes to the future, why should we expect him to be the expert in clairvoyance?”

Why indeed? In the history of the trucking industry, the most important breakthroughs have generally come not from customer input, but from the innovation and plain old hard work of talented individuals within organizations who are convinced they can make things better.

The late Larry Orr, when he was serving as Kenworth's chief engineer, is a good case in point. Orr is best known for his leadership role in the development of the industry-altering aerodynamic truck, the T600A, for which he and his design team were awarded the Dept. of Transportation's National Award for the Advancement of Motor Vehicle Research and Development.

Looking back, it is worth remembering that fleet customers did not come to Orr asking for an aerodynamic truck. Instead, he studied the business of trucks and trucking and thought constantly about what he and his fellow engineers could do to improve things. The fuel efficient T600 was his gift to the industry and it initially caught customers so by surprise that many weren't even sure they'd accept it.

When Charles Goodyear discovered the vulcanization of rubber in 1839, Robert William Thompson invented the rubber tire in 1845, John Boyd Dunlop filled it with air in 1888 and Michelin added radial-ply in 1953, it was much the same thing. Customers did not drive these innovations. They were the products of individual thought, effort and even a bit of luck on the part of knowledgeable and talented people committed to constantly making things better.

Right this minute, there may be creative people like my friend squirming restlessly in the back seat wishing for a turn at the innovation wheel. For all I know, there are dozens of fleet owners and managers, engineers, marketers and technicians who suspect that there have been enough laps around the block on issues like insurance, poor profitability and security and are eager to try a different route or turn trucking toward a brighter future they believe they can see just off in the distance.

Well then, go for it. There is a motion-sick industry holding on for dear life right behind you all the way.

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