A talk with Tim Kobe


What will one of the brains behind some the world’s most iconic customer experiences have to teach us? That is the first thing that sprung to mind when I was recently asked to host an event in Melbourne featuring Tim Kobe.

For the small group of professionals who are focused on understanding, designing and delivering outstanding customer experiences Tim Kobe is something of legend. However many have not heard of him. To the majority of people he is best known, like a true artist, for his work. He has worked with many of the world’s biggest brands, such as Nike, Citibank and Virgin, designing retail, real world and integrated experiences. However he most famously know as being one of the key thinkers behind the Apple retail store design.

The team responsible for putting on the event was a networking group called My Alumni and Kobe proved to be quite a draw card. After a short presentation of the work he has done while leading his company, Eight Inc, Tim and I sat down for a discussion on stage. During the 30 min or so that we spent talking we discussed what it was like working with Steve Jobs, his views on what Apple needs to do to keep evolving it’s cult-like status and a couple of stories he has had working for the world’s most successful and eccentric people.

There was a lot to discuss but it was Kobe’s experience of working with Steve Jobs that most in the crowd were there to hear about. What we learned was that Jobs’ attention to detail was absolute. For example one of his demands when the Apple stores were being designed was the lighting on products had to be exactly the same as it was in their adverting material.

On reflection the one topic that Kobe kept coming back to was how focused on the customer a leader, and an organisation, needs to be to be outstanding. Having worked with many of the world’s most known brands he has seen what it takes first hand. In his view, a view I share, a business needs to be somewhat fanatical about it’s customers.

Towards the end of the talk Kobe told a story that really struck a cord with me. He was describing the process of working with Jobs on the launch of the first Apple store. The night before it was due to open a clearly nervous Jobs asked a question of the team that had spent the previous few years working on the project. He asked “What of nobody shows up?”. Clearly he was afraid his new project would fail.

It is worth remembering that at this stage Jobs was at the height of his power. Yet his primary concern was what would Apple customer think. His was emotionally involved in the project and knew it was a big risk.

When I heard that it was clear to me what made Jobs so successful. He was obsessive about delighting Apple’s customers and exceeding expectations. His success was never about him, it was only ever about his customer.

It won’t be easy, but that is what it takes to be the market leader.

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