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Customers don't want your product or what it does

By Mark Sage

Whether Amazon, Uber or Alibaba, there's a lot written about these digital-only players and the impact they're having on the traditional high-street and more traditional businesses.

But maybe they're missing the real challenge - customers just don't want what you sell.

Or more specifically, how you sell it.

You can argue about tax advantages, skirting existing regulations or the perceived benefit of not being tied to an existing estate of bricks and mortar stores. However, the real advantage these digital businesses have is simply a focus on the customer rather than the product and a desire to constantly and consistently raise their game.

These digital-only businesses are inherently customer centric businesses with a myopic attention on, and connection with, their end customers.

Using a couple of examples.

I recently needed some new shelving for my house and so went to the traditional leading DIY player in the UK. Their website made it easy to locate the products, but for some reason the shelves weren't eligible for home delivery - even for an order value of £129 - with the only option for 'click and collect'. So entering my local store details, checking stock and placing the order I'm set.

Or not.

The store subsequently called me to inform me that only half my order was available in-store, there was no way to order more and no way to have it delivered. There was literally no focus on my needs as a customer and instead, just a collection of independent systems - e-commerce and in-store POS which didn't talk to each other and failed to create a joined up user experience. What I wanted was shelving - what I got was a headache.

Amazon on the other hand have hand delivered a book I wanted, ordered on a Sunday, delivered same day and worth just £7.

Another example is a UK market leading telecoms player providing, amongst other things, cutting edge 'fibre to the premises' broadband. With a new house and a new connection, my broadband isn't performing quite as expected. Using their online chat solution I'm quickly speaking with an operator explaining my challenge. A full 10 minutes into the chat, having provided my account details, I'm dutifully informed that they can only support copper connections. For the new fibre connections, I'll need to call an 0800 number. Apparently it's a different team, different systems and a different contact method - despite it being the same company. What I wanted was someone to take ownership - what I got was more work.

Contrast this with Deliveroo, who, when notified that items were missing from my order via the app, immediately credited the order. A simple, responsive and joined up experience.

None of this is truly hard. Systems can be connected. Processes aligned. Yes, these big legacy companies have legacy systems and large, sprawling product options, but the real challenge isn't the legacy systems but the legacy thinking.

Businesses like Uber are consistently innovating and evolving their user experience. They're not focused on the product but instead focus on the customer experience and the value it delivers. They iterate the customer experience quickly, fixing issues and adding capabilities - ultimately making it easier to do business with them.

Some legacy businesses understand this. Grocery retailer Woolworths in Australia created a separate business unit called WooliesX to "connect technology, data and insights to help make [their] customers’ shopping experience more personal and easier".

As Woolworths show, for these businesses, what is required is a focus, not on the products produced or the services sold, but on the customer needs and how to constantly deliver a joined up, engaging user experience.

If a traditional business fails, it's won't be due to the lack of a level playing field, it'll simply be that they've been playing the wrong game with the wrong rules.

As Alan Klement says succinctly in his book 'When coffee and kale compete':

'Customers don’t want your product or what it does; they want help making their lives better'.