The unseen customer and her relevance to the future of your business

“I assure you, he will ask for your thoughts and then shoot them down, mid sentence” was a comment by a manager friend from a recent conversation. His organisation had stagnated for about 5 years, numbers were low, morale was lower and the only ideas that ever saw the light if day seemed to be those unofficially categorised as “most likely to be accepted by the boss”. I smiled knowingly at the trend I had seen start years ago at a meeting where a rising star had raised an idea that was shot down, mid sentence. She soon left to become one of the most productive sector leaders in an outpost of the same company. Still the entire organisation is stuck with an interesting type of leader – good enough to be listened to, but not experienced with “out of the box” thinking.

 Problems cannot be solved at the same level of thinking at which they were created, and besides, there are new problems every day – some, a repeat of what may have happened before – with slight variations. Others, entirely new. There are also problems caused by the customer’s widening perspective of what forms the baseline for acceptable service, not to mention what the competition is willing to do to meet and exceed same. From a cursory study of business history, it appears that the best performing companies tend to focus on connecting with the customer.

But it wasn’t always so as customers used to be simply satisfied with great products that were easy to use. Then the customer, wanting more than just a great product, wanted a connection. That is, they wanted to be heard, felt, and seen. They wanted to be recognised as important, and not one more sale. The CEO could no longer sit in the corner office all day managing her vast empire, or take to the skies attending yet another meeting. She had to be available to the customer, and not just the high value customer but also the mass market. This is because as organisations got larger, a bias towards high level client management was no longer effective especially if the objective was o see around the curve.

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Business leaders then realised that with the help of technology, it was easier to connect with larger groups of people. And so, some took to days dedicated to open phone calls, while others chose to connect via social media. It may be that connecting with the customer through the pre-planned meetings, roundtables, and annual meetings is no longer as effective as it once was. Today’s business leaders would do well to be only a call, SMS or tweet away taking on the not-so-new challenge of connecting with the customer irrespective of the time of day.

 There are the arguments that a business leader’s time with customers is best utilised if the customer is high value, and this may be true if the purpose is to preserve existing businesses and possibly grow incrementally. However, if the purpose is to get into entirely new business areas or get brutal feedback key to the future of the firm, then it might be best to go mass market. And that is the challenge; carving out time to connect with the unseen customer – the customer who may not be high value, but who’s point is still valid. The customer who’s many complaints are inversely related to her financial value to the company. It might be the employee who currently isn’t doing well on the job, but has a perspective missed by superiors. It might be the middle manager tired of pushing an idea through a rigid system and has decided to be a ‘yes man’- because life is easier that way.

 As the best ideas rarely announce themselves as so, it might be reasonable to spare a thought for the unseen customer.

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Large companies used to spend decades on the who’s who of business lists, in the zone where the competition couldn’t inflict much damage and it was easy to attract as much talent and funding as was wanted. Earnings were at record highs and high flyers were rewarded accordingly. However, their impact on the communities could have been better and profits could have been more fairly shared with employees. This is going by sentiments held by a certain generation expected to change the way business works.

Fresh college graduates, growing disillusioned with the promise of big corporates are going out on their own to start new businesses, fully aware of the risks. Reports indicate that many will fail within the first five years, but some succeed and grow quickly as if in solidarity with those who failed. Graduates who choose to work at existing corporate giants, where given the choice, seem to look for those that have a clear sense of purpose and direction.

By interpretation, existing businesses might need to be faster in getting the right products to the market. They would also need to show a stronger connection to a higher purpose than their forebears, as today’s millennial professional is looking for something more than size and rewards alone. In his book, “How will you measure you life?”, management consultant and professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, Clay Christensen came to the conclusion that there are things deeper than material definitions of success. This is after decades of observing the career paths of his Harvard MBA classmates.

Financial and material rewards have their place of course, but it is hard to find people at the end of their lives screaming for the opportunity to make a little more money. If it’s any reference to go by, the world’s richest tend to go after things that are more contributory in nature. The days where wealth was measured by expensive assets (or toys) are gone somewhat as doing that today communicates a certain emptiness in the actor. There is value to consciously investing in communities, making them stronger and more resilient.

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Millennials, also the world’s largest and soon to be wealthiest demographic, (born between 1980 and 2000) may have figured also come to a similar conclusion. They are out not only to create a good life for themselves, but to also make a difference in their environment. Research shows that some are willing to accept lower pay if the destination company is serious about improving the quality of life on a global scale. This is more likely to be the case as careers mature. A willingness to make a difference is part of the fuel for today’s startup. True, there is also the craving for wealth and fame but this usually gives way to a renewed quest for meaning as it becomes clear that after record profits, additional profit won’t have the same effect it once had. In effect, today’s founders might want wealth and fame, but are unwilling to let go of purpose and meaning at any phase in the process to becoming successful.

The established players will continue to experience irritation from these startups, losing out completely in some instances if they remain mainly focused on the bottom line. As most disruptions go, it will start in trickles, innocuous and may take years to grow. But if not prepared for, it will catch on and redraw the competitive landscape for decades to come.

A few established players have rightly recognised Millennials not only as a market segment, but also as a unique talent pool. Some now have millennials in strategic positions, while others have created internal units with products focused on their needs. In some cases outright acquisition of millennial startups has been the best option. Nevertheless, having experienced hands looking over their shoulders further ensures past mistakes don’t repeat themselves. Interestingly only a few startups have to succeed to upend an industry, and they have the wind in their sails at the moment.

Seeing ahead and being relevant to you

It takes as many as 25 people to successfully execute a heart transplant, and each has a role unlike the other. Each role on the day must have been carefully prepared for and each member of the team must work within a slim margin of error for the endeavour to succeed. Each person is expected to have been trained for at least a decade, and is currently on some continuous professional development programme. It is the nature of things that the higher the level of responsibility, or the more specialised an area of operation is, the greater the amount of skill, effort, relevant experience and depth of know how required to succeed.

Coming to aviation, the assembly of an airplane needs over 200 professionals working towards creating the best user experience, (while ensuring the plane never crashes, of course!). Take for example; engine parts have to be tested by an array of experts to verify ability to function even in the most difficult weather. The more sensitive the focus area of an expert, the more the amount of preparation required to pull it off. The expert cannot afford to get it wrong and this has contributed to technology’s rise as a complement to human decision making.

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Commenting on his 20 years as a soccer team manager, Arsene Wenger recently suggested that team managers of the future would not need to be extensively knowledgeable in the game. The ‘new’ managers would likely be able to select their players with the aid of technology as computers would have relevant data on player performance trends and strategic team choice options based on the selection of the opposing team. Part of the point is this; making significant progress in an industry, asides having a clear sense of direction, requires a dizzying number of events, some occurring contemporaneously, and a large number of people working in partnership. While this highlights the importance of leadership and one’s ability to work in teams, there is need to recognise these concepts not as possible outcomes of leadership strategy sessions, but as a basis for decision making.

The World Economic Forum’s report on the future of work suggests that placing a premium on one’s ability to contribute to a group and an ability to lead in complex situations are good starting points. On the back of projected workplace and business environment complexity is the need for continuous self improvement. The coming challenges of the business world and life in general will not be solved by yesterday’s insights, regardless of how long they’ve worked. There’s always some new shift just around the corner; some new service the customer is going to demand, some new industry wide regulation, some unique way the world of work is going to evolve and as such, some adjustments that must be made for careers to survive, stabilise and then prepare for the next round of adjustments.

So, it might be good to start or stay on the treadmill of self improvement, doing the morning stretches, having the critical conversations with industry thought leaders, scanning the environment and asking; what is coming, what might we be missing and what improvements need to be made? In his book, Only the Paranoid Survive, Andy Grove made it clear that it is far better to initiate the new wave than to be called upon to respond – because not much time is given the responder to prepare (by way of adjusting business models and the like) and even the entire industry might be on its way out.

This means that advancement demands a certain vulnerability on the part of leadership; a willingness to be wrong, learn quickly and let go of what may have worked decades hitherto (and in some cases, might still be working).

The core of innovation that wins.

The Ubisoft Gaming development team had just presented what would be their highest grossing video game – Assassins creed 3. Based in Montreal, they had worked hard to create a new experience for the consumer and going by the numbers, they had hit a winner – innovation had paid off.

Away from gaming, there are tools that measure blood pressure, apps that can connect patients to the top doctors in specific locations for advise on a range of ailments. There are services that can deliver purchased items within hours, whether it be by land, sear or air. There are car pool services that allow clients park anywhere and arrange for pick up anywhere. There are services that promise a round up of all that has happened in the world in the last 24 hrs – all in 5 minutes.

These are examples of how people have discovered ways to make life easier, more convenient and cost effective. Since the discovery of fire, and even fore that there has been consistent movement from one invention to the other. There was also the square wheel that was changed in to the round version – again ease the process of day to day living. There are transport systems that allow people travel under water or overland at almost unbelievable speeds and that as high as 50,000 sq. meters above sea level.

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Through significant investment of resources man has brought an end to diseases that wiped out millions in times past through the discovery vaccines and alternative healthcare methods. This has led to the extension of life, not only in terms of number of years, but also in terms of quality. Sadly, there have also been discoveries to end the lives of many, and that at speeds unheard of since the beginning of time.

New ideas have also been introduced to education, art and the science making access easier and learning simpler. And while getting the benefits of these innovations have come at a price fully aware of the profit motive, the individual remains at the centre of all innovation. Without the individual, products and services would not be needed and would both be of much value.

Dependence on tools where taken too far and even blamed for the inability to produce results is often a negative effect of innovation. So there is some blame on social media for the current inability of today’s teenager to start conversations and manage physical relationships. Tools should not always be blamed for inability to resolve issues as people created tools. Then, just how important are they to human ingenuity and the capacity for discovery?

It is clear, from a cursory glance through history that groundbreaking inventors did not have access to some of these tools to achieve their levels of greatness. It boiled down to the capacity of the individual to innovate. Thomas Edison reminds us “The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are, first, hard work; second, stick-to-itiveness; third, common sense.”

It might be reasonable in some instances to tone down the dependence on technology to achieve real lasting results as the more relevant innovations today tend to be those that leverage more on human relations than on complex gadgets. The exceptions here may be advances recorded in pharma/bio tech.

Human potential is still core to innovation and should be developed through reflection, engagement and the execution of ideas. People are the primary tool – their ideas, predispositions, relationships and work ethic.

Out of the box ideas that succeed remind us that innovation has the most value when it improves the of lives of the most people. The betterment of human lives remains at the centre of innovations that are remembered for generations.