The connection between customer and company is ephemeral. When it’s strong, a product or service can achieve almost a cult-like status. When the connection is weak, a business can lose its way. I was reminded of this by Apple’s release of the iPhone 7 and a Bruce Springsteen concert I attended; these seemingly disconnected things have an important lesson for entrepreneurs.
When Apple released its iPhone 7 last week, the ghost of Apple founder Steve Jobs was surely looking on, but the more corporeal world provided little more than a collective yawn. In comparison to the launches of earlier versions of the iPhone, where the media and customers breathlessly recited the amazing innovations included in the latest release, the reaction to this most recent iteration was surprisingly muted.
As a result, some opine that Apple lost its way when Jobs died. Certainly, he ran Apple more like a consumer design company than a technology company. The beauty of products, the connection the user feels when “unboxing,” giving the customer something unexpected — all made Apple unique. Apple understood that how a customer feels about a product is as important as what it does.
An emblematic story of this approach was shared by Walter Isaacson in his biography of Steve Jobs. The visionary had his engineers autograph the system board for the fledgling Apple Macintosh. When engineers pointed out that no one would ever see their signatures buried in the device, Jobs reminded them that although the user might not ever spot it, the engineers themselves would know it was there.
Connection between customers and company. Engineers thinking about consumers they will never meet. Asking whether a device felt good in the hand, or if a smiling icon would be more welcoming than the “c-prompt” that used to greet users when they logged in to their home computer. (If you are old enough to remember c:\, then you know first-hand how Macs didn’t just “think different” but were different.) That was the Apple that Steve Jobs ran.
Enter Bruce Springsteen. I recently joined 50,000 fellow fans for a concert at Nationals Park. I will admit to being at best a casual follower of his music, yet I have never seen such a connection between an artist and a crowd. You know that feeling when you come into a room and you can feel that everyone knows each other and likes one another? It was like that. Close, intimate and connected.
Struck by this experience, I did a bit of digging, and found that stories of personal connection between the 66-year-old and his fans are many. A fan dressed as Elvis coming up on stage and joining the band with Springsteen singing backup. Someone seated in the upper decks suddenly finding himself in the first row through two free tickets from The Boss. Fans with signs asking for Springsteen to play their favorite song and him using their request as a playlist.
I see similarities in Apple’s history and Springsteen’s concert.
It’s all about empathy. Apple and Springsteen put themselves in the shoes of their customer and imagine how it feels to be at the receiving end — being delighted. Whether it’s singing a song for the thousandth time but with an energy and passion of the day it was written or giving customers something so special that they feel a sense of connection that comes from acknowledgement.
The lesson for those of us in business is that when we take the time to truly understand our customers, they can tell. And, when we don’t, we lose the most valuable connection of all.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, an Arlington-based organization that seeks to connect innovators to government agencies. He is host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program, and lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.