Consumers Won’t Miss Steve Jobs, So They Say

There are only a handful of CEOs that any given person from off the street could name without much difficulty. Steve Jobs just so happens to be one of them. But while people might know about the man behind Apple, new data reveals that consumers might not care if he remains with the the company at all.

New data from a survey done by RBC Capital Markets and ChangeWave tell the story — 3,091 respondents were asked between January 31 and February 9 whether or not their interest in Apple products would be affected by a Steve Jobs departure. The results are a bit shocking to me.

In the most recent survey, only 7 percent of respondents would be negatively affected by Steve Jobs’ departure. That is, for lack of a better term, impressive, especially when considering how much attention Jobs receives when he takes the stage. But in June 2008, a different survey revealed that 18 percent of the respondents would be less likely to purchase Apple products if Jobs wasn’t in control.

This shows that, compared to a few years ago, consumers care have more trust in the company, regardless of who is calling the shots. But why did consumers care more about Jobs back then than they do now?

Man vs. Machine

There are a few theories. One theory is that Apple products have become more accepted by typical (meaning non-tech-savvy) consumers; they are more willing to invest in the company simply because they see everyone else using Apple’s products and they know that the products work. (Also, these new consumers might not know or care about the story of how Apple came to be when compared to early adopters.)

Another theory is that trust in Apple has been earned because Steve Jobs handed over the job to Tim Cook in 2004 and 2009. No disasters occurred at those times; in fact, the company’s revenues increased by 20 percent, stock price rose by 144 percent, and iPhone shipments totaled at 25 million. Consumers, as a result, might be under the impression that things will be fine, just as they were before.

Yet another theory is that the executive talent at Apple is more than capable to fill in Jobs’ shoes if necessary. Tim Cook’s abilities as a CEO — while being relatively untested — could be just as good as Steve Jobs’. After all, Steve Jobs picked Tim Cook for a reason; it surely wasn’t to leave Apple with a leader who couldn’t do the company justice after he left. There are other executives like Philip Schiller and Jonathan Ive who also have plenty of experience with Apple.

But the most logical explanation is that consumers trust Apple. The company ranks highest in customer service, customer satisfaction, and quality year after year. The company also produces quality products, which rarely have issues with them. And Apple also happens to be a company that produces innovation in markets that seemingly don’t have room left to be innovated from within.

Few companies can deliver the aforementioned on such a consistent basis. Consumers know that, with Apple, there is going to be a major product upgrade every two or so years. Consumers know that every year there is going to be significant software improvements to make their devices more useful. This consistency keeps consumers comfortable.

But even though consumers trust Apple so heavily, there is one thing that can’t be overlooked: Steve Jobs was calling the shots, even when he was on medical leave. Furthermore, Jobs is still calling the shots to this very day.

Decision Maker

To disregard Jobs’ achievements while working at Apple would be a serious mistake. He, alone, had visions to revolutionize the music industry, the smart phone industry, the movie industry, the tablet industry, and maybe (in the future) the television manufacturing industry. He is the one to sign off on these ambitious projects, and he is probably the person who inspired the company to charge head first into these markets.

Any other CEO might have been afraid to attempt such things, knowing that their job could be on the line. Even fewer would be able to properly execute them with Jobs’ precision. He truly is one of a kind.

There is a reason why a person is called a leader. Leaders might be born or they might grow from experience. But no matter what people say, a leader is someone who is willing to make tough decisions. Leaders are a dime a dozen, and leading some of the world’s largest technology companies is not an easy process (just take a look at Steve Ballmer).

No Jobs, No Apple?

Maybe I’m silly to think that Apple would suffer without Steve Jobs — perhaps the 93 percent of respondents are right on the money. After all, Apple could go on to perform even better without Steve Jobs. I won’t argue this possibility.

But I can’t be that optimistic.

Maybe four or five years after Apple would still be fine. I’m sure the company already has a road map that paints their future for the next decade. But what about after that? What happens several years after the man behind the company leaves and the successor is left to attempt to put together the pieces? How can someone possibly fill some of the biggest shoes in existence?

Every decision a would-be successor makes would come into question by investors, board members, and consumers. One huge mistake could change people’s perception of someone like Tim Cook, and it wouldn’t be long before some argue if he should even be leading the company. And once you unsettle a person by threatening his job, that person begins to act in a more cautious manner. Taking caution is the safe way to run a company — it ensures that you, the CEO, keep your job and you keep making your millions. But you don’t become the world’s best in anything by playing it safe.

Steve Ballmer is the perfect example of a person who runs a company the safe way — the wrong way. He has been playing it safe with Microsoft since Bill Gates stepped down from CEO in 2000. The only significant risk the company has taken since then has come in the last year, when Microsoft announced Windows Phone 7. Slow doesn’t even begin to describe it.

But I’m sure that, at the time of Bill Gates’ departure, many within the company were confident that Ballmer could handle the job. Gates, himself, was confident in his ability.

Apple could suffer the same fate if Steve Jobs were to leave Apple. The new management would be great at running the company as it stands (just as Ballmer was). I have no doubt that they could churn out new designs for iPods, iPads, Macbook Airs, and much more for the next few years. But to ask someone else other than Jobs to revolutionize an existing industry from scratch with one of the most popular tech companies in the world… well, I think I would bet everything on Steve Jobs before considering anyone else.

I would miss him dearly.