Whether simply beginning to map out long-term product or technology roadmaps, examining areas of exploration or innovation, analyzing channel strategy or simply wanting more from existing customers, every company would be well served by asking
What are my customers really buying?
The first big mistake most companies make is believing their customers are buying a thing—a specific product or service. Meaning, your basic widget manufacturer thinks they are satisfying a consumer's desire to own a widget. That frame of mind works well enough in most cases. You can survey the market fairly efficiently and determine the total current market for widgets. You can do a bit of google searching and know how many other widget manufacturers are out there. And finally, you can do a bit of math and quickly determine getting more or less of your reasonably fair share of the market. The problem with that perspective is that it tends to limit the range of growth ideas to those defined by their widgetness. Better widgets. Bigger widgets. Cheaper widgets.
Harvard Business School Clayton Christensen views consumer transactions from a different perspective. In his book, Competing Against Luck, Christensen posits products are not purchased, but rather “hired” by the customer to do a specific job. And if a company can unravel the relationship, it gives them more and better avenues along which to innovate—creating better candidates for the available job.
One example he cites in his classes at HBS is that of a milkshake company that hired Christensen and his team to help boost sales. Through a series of post-purchase interviews with customers at the milkshake purveyor’s retail outlets, Christensen was able to determine that for most buyers, the job the milkshake was hired for wasn't sustenance or even pleasure, per se, but rather a distraction during a long commute home. That the physical challenge of pulling a thick shake through a straw was the perfect distraction to help make the long drive more tolerable.
The company used that insight to create a new line of shakes, both thicker to last longer, and more entertaining through the addition of fruit chunks and other bits to deliver additional joy and keep drivers more “shake engaged.” Changing perspective and understanding what their customers were really buying—entertainment and distraction—opened new avenues for product innovation and growth.
Does my business really have to work this way?
The second big mistake many make is assuming the way you’re currently doing business is the right way and that the logical path to follow leads to doing more of it. As soon as you resign yourself to a specific channel strategy, technology platform, distribution model, et al, you close yourself off to potential opportunities and open opportunities for new market entrants.
Case in point: Casper mattresses. Prior to Casper, the mattress retail experience adhered to a few fairly strict experience guidelines. First, the buyer had to be able to try out the mattress in a retail showroom before purchase—usually under the watchful eye of sales associate. A mattress was too large a purchase to make blindly. Adding to that risk was guideline number two—retailers would do just about anything not to have to take returns on mattresses. And three, selling mattresses direct, online, wouldn’t be financially viable, due to the shipping costs.
In 2014, Casper turned literally every aspect of the purchasing process upside down. The mattresses ship to a customer’s doorstep in a highly compressed in a box of only 19 x 19 x 41 inches—keeping shipping reasonable. Customers are free to sleep on the mattress in their own home for 100 nights. If they return it, Casper picks it up and donates the mattress to a local charity. Truly a disruptive entrant. An article from Fortune nicely encapsulates the dangers of the incumbent being too wedded to their model:
At first, big mattress companies dismissed the “bed-in-a-box” trend as a niche phenomenon, hardly worth acknowledging; but that was before the startups grabbed 9% of U.S. market share. In August 2016, Sealy launched Cocoon by Sealy, a bed-in-a-box brand boasting minimalist fonts, an uncluttered scrolling webpage, and a price point half that of Casper’s. “It’s been a delayed reaction, but now they all have bed-in-a-box products,” says Seth Basham, senior vice president of equity research at Wedbush Securities. As for Casper, Basham adds: “They’ve already got a foothold. Now it’s a matter of how big they’ll grow.”
In what way are you failing customers?
Sometimes the toughest act for a company, or an entire industry, is to take a honest look in the mirror and document the flaws, warts and all. That means really taking the time to understand the end-to-end customer experience and cataloguing every point of friction, pain or frustration. Then looking at those points and asking, “If these flaws, no matter how insignificant they may seem, were critical enough to put me out of business tomorrow, how would I, and to what effort would I put forth, to solve it?” History has shown US market entrants who address issues that companies imagined were trivial can radically alter the competitive landscape. Sometimes that thing can be as small as an emoji.
Starting in 2010, Domino’s Pizza started looking in the mirror and being honest about what it saw, or rather, tasted. It admitted that its pizza was, shall we say, “less than tasty.” So, their first action was to admit it. To themselves and to the world, through their advertising. The second, was obviously to reformulate. Setting aside whether you subjectively agree that the outcome of that reformulation was an improvement, objectively the market began to take notice.
Continuing the examination, Domino’s started to look at every aspect of the ordering experience, leading ultimately to what I would say is the most frictionless ordering experience in their industry, the emoji order. Once you are in their system, your mobile number registered, the only thing between you and a fresh hot delivered pizza is one texted pizza emoji.
Was ordering a pizza via phone, the web, or a mobile app really a “fail”? Easy enough, right? Maybe. But given the number of pizzas ordered by those under the influence of any number of chemical substances every year, something as simple as an emoji just might substantially increase their chances of a completing that order successfully. And it’s a pretty entertaining experience for everyone else, too.
And addressing those seemingly minor, “fails,” has had a major positive impact on their stock price.
Ultimately, try to think like a customer… from another planet.
It’s never easy to see past our experiences or biases. But when a company can be deliberate about the process of self-examination and inquiry, and take on the perspective of an objective observer, opportunities reveal themselves.