Like most industrial concerns at the time, Black & Decker became an integral part of the United States’ war effort during World War II, producing power tools used in the defense industry. Alonzo G. Decker, Jr., a Vice President of the company (as well as the son of one of the founders), noticed that a defense contractor was buying drills at an unusual rate:
“Are they breaking down?” Mr. Decker asked.
“No, they are disappearing. Women are taking them home in their lunch baskets,” he was told.
Mr. Decker said he replied, “When females are taking drills home, we ought to be making something just for the home.”
“Toolmaker innovator Decker Jr. dead at 94” Baltimore Sun, 3/19/2002
Aside from the sexism (it was the 1940s), two things should stand out: Decker was proactively looking for anomalies (including orders that were “too good”) that might indicate problems and he was alert to new opportunities. With the end of the war, Black & Decker launched a line of power tools for the home market, selling their millionth drill in less than five years. After nearly seventy years, the market has grown to $14.5 billion, of which Stanley Black & Decker holds $5.2 billion. Imagine the difference it might have made had he ignored either the anomaly or the opportunity.
In my previous post, “Faster Horses – Henry Ford and Customer Development”, I pointed out the importance of understanding the problem space in terms of customer needs and wants. While listening to customers is a valuable technique, Decker’s story shows that observing them can be just as valuable, if not more so. Some people dislike confrontation, some people dislike complaining, but their actions will generally conform to their feelings.
While the latest Big Data techniques can potentially give great insight into a customer’s motivations, Decker’s experience proves that lower tech metrics can work as well. The key is determine what the needs are and then pay attention to how well those needs are being met using the best methods at your disposal. Detecting issues before the customer complains can pay dividends – Alonzo Decker was looking for a problem when he found a multi-billion dollar market segment.