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    « RADIO : You'll certainly be sick of hearing from me after this week | Main | The Etch A Sketch and Letting Go in Order to Create »

    Your customers as characters

    Most organizations exist to sell something - a physical product, or some type of service, or a combination of the two. They spend tremendous amounts of time, energy, and resources creating these product/service offerings, perfecting them as far as it is possible, offering them for sale, identifying the target consumers for these offerings, and finally investing varying amounts of additional time, energy, and resources attempting to convince these consumers to make a purchase.

    Sometimes it goes really easily for the provider - the product is new, even revolutionary, or it solves a problem in such a new, elegant, and powerful way that the product seems to sell itself. Think the original iPod, or later, the iPad. Or the product has an embedded, loyal, and rabid fan base just waiting to get the latest or newest version of the product. Think a new installment in a successful movie or video game franchise like Star Wars or even Angry Birds.

    But for most products or services on offer, the customer needs some convincing - they have time, flexibility, other competitors' options to consider - the 'sale' is certainly not assured, and the difference between winning and losing often comes down to which not (only) has the better product, but which one actually understands the customer's problem more deeply, and can speak more precisely and convincingly about how their solution can solve that specific problem.

    I know that sounds really, really obvious and basic, but I think that all too often providers can lost sight of that simple truism - focused too much, and sometimes single-mindedly on the product or service itself, and not how that product or service would actually exist in the customer's environment. Adding one more feature to the product, tweaking some minor element of the service package, or poring endlessly on ad copy, website design, or the 'tone' of the company Twitter account. When the customer has lots of options and choices, these incremental additions or improvements probably do less to sway decision makers than the providers like to think. Once the 'essential' or expected capabilities or services are present, and in a mature market they usually are, the provider that can connect, almost on an emotional level with the customer has the best chance of winning.

    How can providers get better at making that kind of connection, and focus more on solving a problem rather than delivering a product?

    This piece, about home furnishing provider IKEA's strategic approach offers at least one suggestion:

    Göran Carstedt, president of IKEA North America, summoned his top executives to a large meeting room to share his strategic plan. They arrived prepared for a flashy PowerPoint presentation complete with charts and graphs. Instead, Carstedt told them a story about a mother. He depicted a detailed scene of her and her husband getting two kids off to school in the morning. She gets up, makes coffee, wakes up the children, makes breakfast, and so on. Then he paused and moved to the heart of the matter: “Our strategic plan is to make that family’s life easier by providing them with convenient and affordable household items in an accessible location. Period.


    Carstedt, in short, wanted IKEA to enter the scene, to populate it with IKEA-supplied usefulness that customers would appreciate having in their homes as they conducted their daily lives. He wanted his executives, in effect, to write IKEA into their customers’ story in a way that improved the story for the characters that populated it. Brilliant! As Carmen Nobel, senior editor at Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, notes, “IKEA has made very clear choices about who they will be and to whom they will matter, and why."
    That, in a nutshell, sums up why people might be inclined to go with an IKEA table or dresser or bed, from among the literally hundreds of available options. Thinking more deeply about how their products interact and exist in the flow of their customer's lives allows IKEA to rise above a simple provider of easily substitutable products. Somehow, just by thinking of themselves as a fundamental an important element in a customer's home, they are freed to think more fully, and holistically about the products and how they will play a role in the customer's story.


    A good lesson to take to heart I think, for providers of all kinds of products and services.


    Happy Tuesday!

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