Most of my posts on this blog are focused on how to improve business processes, especially those that influence customers directly. We talk extensively here about the importance of tracking the right KPIs, effective measurement and analysis of performance results, and how these insights can catalyze creative and innovative solutions to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of our business and operational activities. Done right, these can lead to dramatic improvements through streamlining workflows and rethinking the very nature of of our operating processes. And the value that derives from this can be enormous.
But without great products, you’re swimming upstream…
Truth be told, most of the time we are focused on improving our existing business processes (i.e., the way we currently interact and transact with customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders). In fact, the very core of process change — be it the Michael Hammer approach to re-engineering, or the latest in Six Sigma and Lean strategies — is based on understanding the world as it exists today and then systematically reinventing delivery processes to better meet the underlying objectives of the process. That, of course, is an oversimplification of what these disciplines offer, but when you look at the intricacies of concepts like D-M-A-I-C, which is at the core of many process improvement methodologies, they invariably begin with an assessment of current state and a progression though the systematic steps of business improvement.
But there is another side to business improvement that often gets lost when we explore current operational and delivery processes. As we’ve discussed here before, true customer satisfaction is a function of both product excellence AND delivery excellence. Have a great product and screw up the delivery, and you’ve got a recipe for captive customers itching to defect the moment someone else offers anything close to your innovative solution. Conversely, providing great service in support of a mediocre product only delays the inevitable. Great products and great service, taken together, are the winning recipe for success. Pretty intuitive right? Well, if it’s so intuitive, ask yourself why so many of our improvement efforts focus only on downstream delivery versus upstream innovation?
I am a big fan of systematic business improvement of our delivery processes. And goodness knows, there is no shortage of broken delivery and service processes. There are some pretty good products and solutions out there that are only achieving a fraction of their market potential because of the service environment in which they operate. But at the same time, there are some pretty good service organizations out there that are severely handicapped by their company’s lack of any significant product innovation.
Myth Busted: Product Innovation DOES NOT start with better research
There is no better example of a company that has achieved both Product and Service excellence than Apple. In all of the Steve Job’s eulogizing that is occurring out there, there is one characteristic that I find particularly noteworthy and relevant to this discussion. It was mentioned by the Wall Street Journal a few days before his death, discussed in a number of interviews, and is a theme that has re-emerged in Isaacson’s biography that hit the shelves yesterday.
A bold ‘call-out’ in an article that accompanied the iPhone 4S release stated simply: Apple doesn’t ask customers what they want.” I must admit, what I heard at first didn’t match what was written. What my ears “heard” was that “Apple doesn’t care what its customers think”. Incidentally, I showed the article to three people and when I heard them share the story with colleagues later in the day, it was evident that they had heard the same thing. Yet clearly the article wasn’t saying anything close to that. The call-out said they don’t ASK customers what they WANT, not that they don’t care what they need.
What they ARE saying is that the key to innovation is not gobs and gobs of market research and consulting fees to ask customers what they want, but a recognition that customers don’t typically know what they want. I realize this sounds a little condescending, but try this interpretation on for size — “It’s not the customer’s JOB to figure out what the product should be, how it should be designed, and what value it should deliver”. In fact, that’s from Steve Job’s own mouth. When you look at it like that, it shows up as a deep, intense respect for customers and their time, as well as a declaration of what the accountability of innovators should be!
When our companies design products, most of us don’t live in that same universe. Rather, we spend lots of time and money asking customers for opinions about things they have no idea about, and which opinions is it not their responsibility to provide in the fist place. Great product developers, on the other hand, inspire customers by giving them something they didn’t know they wanted but which, once they have it, they can’t imagine having lived without.
Redesigning the product aspect of our offers is critical to providing high levels of sustainable satisfaction, yet improving the product design process is altogether different from what we do on the operational side of things. In operations we must start with the “as is”. In the product space, we must frequently ignore the “as is” insofar as creating new solutions are concerned. In operations, we strive to avoid waste and unnecessary mistakes. On the product side, we want to encourage mistakes and perhaps even encourage failures. In operations, we base our solutions on in-depth analysis of past problems. In the product space, we base our solutions on a vision of an inspired customer at some point in the future.
Getting the Product Right
If we look at what companies like Apple do right when it comes to product development, is boils down to both WHAT they do, and the ORDER in which they do it. Let’s look at these one by one.
1. Innovate — Most companies start with research that tells them what customers want — focus groups, surveys, etc. That’s essentially a recipe for a better mouse-trap, but not one one that will create visionary leadership and reveal new market opportunities that will inspire and rally your end users. The first step in product development is to push your team to challenge existing market parameters, barriers, and paradigms, rather than passively accepting them as necessary constraints to their thinking. Are we developing around the boundary of our existing offers (yawn!) or are we redefining what the boundaries are?
2. Integrate — As you begin to define new boundaries and push yourself toward innovation, remember that great products not only exist independently, but also demonstrate their innovation through the offer it is positioned within. Great product companies put as much effort into the paradigm and business model in which their products exist as they do the products themselves. For example, Apple once had dozens of products from Printers to a wide variety of peripherals and product models. One of the first things Jobs did was draw the infamous 2 by 2 matrices- Professional/Personal; Laptop/Desktop. The vision was for each quadrant to have one product, effectively driving the product portfolio from 50 down to 4. Sure, there ultimately evolved more than a handful of products, but the final number was a heck of a lot closer to 4 than to 50. And it’s not hard to figure out which product (iPad, iPhone, iPod, iMac, etc…) fits where, is it?
3. Assimilate — The third step is assimilating it into the market. If you are bold enough to innovate rather than respond, then it will be necessary to help educate and perhaps even overcome the skepticism of customers. It’s a necessary investment when you aspire to redefine a market. But by the same token, this education and informational value can actually be part of the customer experience, and sometimes even drive further levels of delight. Apple storefronts, for example, are as much of an experience in and of themselves as they are outlets for education and assimilation. And at +$40k of sales per square foot of retail space, it’s a pretty cost-effective sales channel!
4. Evaluate — Earlier, I said Apple doesn’t focus on Market Research like other organizations. But that doesn’t mean they don’t do it. They spend money just like every other company does on research, but it’s usually after the fact and not designed to tell them what the customer needs but rather if Apple has hit the mark in its innovative journey. And while some would say it helps validate their success, those inside Apple would say it helps accelerate things, both in terms of further successes, and miscues. Great innovators find ways to accelerate and learn from failures.
So where are your strengths today?
Is it the creativity of your product portfolio? Or is it your ability to overcome product weaknesses and failures through stellar customer service?
If we get the product mix right, then service becomes not a means of correcting or recovering, but rather a way of enhancing and augmenting the customer experience so that the total package does not ask the customer to trade off one dimension of the experience versus another, but, rather, allows them to enjoy the rare combination of exemplary performance in both dimensions.
Author: Bob Champagne is Managing Partner of onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Bob has over 25 years of Performance Management experience and has consulted with hundreds of companies across numerous industries and geographies. Bob can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org