One of my favorite activities when meeting with the companies I work with is to tell them that their customer doesn’t give a flying hoot about their product. This often leads to a storm of protests and objections and meeting participants proudly showing me net promoter scores and quotes from customers where they express their undying love for the company and its products. My typical response is to provide my view on the inconvenience of owning one of their products.
For instance, a truck is an absolute hassle to own: it’s expensive to buy, uses a lot of expensive fuel and tires, requires fleet owners to pay drivers, occasionally breaks down, requires a ton of space to park, and so on. The only reason someone in their right mind would own a truck, or any other product, is because of what they can do with it. Companies own trucks to move goods, telecom networks to offer communication services and medical imaging products to get images from inside human bodies.
Although there are of course products where the customer really cares about the physical item itself, in most cases, they’re predominantly concerned with what the product allows them to do. For instance, most employees at car companies are deeply passionate about cars, but most of their customers have a mobility need that just happens to be best met by owning a car. And that car should be acceptable from a brand and luxury perspective in the area where the customer happens to live.
When companies forget about the intended use of the product, they typically experience three issues: the “tallest midget” problem, overdelivery on KPIs and missing industry disruptions. The first challenge is that businesses that are overly product focused are concerned with developing product generations where each generation is better than the previous one. This internal focus can easily lead to a situation where the company is very pleased with it delivering a better product with every generation, but it’s still falling behind the competition and failing to attract customers. The idea is that the latest product is better than all earlier products and with that, it’s the tallest midget in the village, but it’s still a midget. advertorial
The second challenge is caused by companies being much more focused on competition than on customers. It’s easy to use the products of competitors as the measuring stick and demand that your products are better. As the metrics used for comparing with competitor products may not be what customers really care about, it’s equally easy to develop products that overdeliver on KPIs that customers don’t care about but that add significantly to the product cost.
The third challenge is that companies may easily miss significant shifts in customer preference and industry disruptions. History is littered with businesses that missed these disruptions and kept going on a path that eventually lead to their doom. We all know the story of Kodak, where according to some the first digital camera was developed. The city where I live is the home of Hasselblad, a photographic equipment company that’s now a shadow of its former self. And, of course, I did work for Nokia at some point in the past.
A confounding factor that receives too little attention is that companies very easily end up as hostages of their business ecosystem. Even if many in the company see the disruption coming, their partners, suppliers and customers don’t want them to change as it would require the rest of the ecosystem to change as well. Ensuring you initiate and drive the necessary change despite the pushback from everyone around you requires courage and isn’t for the faint of heart. But it’s also the responsibility of leaders to initiate change before it’s obvious to everyone that it’s needed.
The best way of avoiding these challenges is to think in terms coined by the late Clayton Christensen: every product is “hired” by the customer for a “job” that the customer wants to have accomplished. The customer doesn’t care about the product, but rather about getting the job done. The focus of any product company needs to be to ensure that their product is the best option for getting the job done as customers will switch without a second thought the moment there’s a better way. In fact, industry disruptions are the result of a better alternative becoming available to customers.
Many product companies are in love with their product and that’s generally a good thing. If you don’t care about your product, why would anyone else? However, failing to realize that your customers actually don’t care about your product, but rather the job for which they “hire” it, leads to several challenges that may end up disrupting your business. Instead, continuously focus on the reasons your customers buy your product and ensure that you are and remain the best option customers have to accomplish their desired outcome. As Jay Abraham said: “Sell the benefit, not the product or your company. People buy results, not features.”