Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Seth Godin asks a great question (yes, of course he does): Do you love your customers?
It struck a chord with me, as I’ve been developing this theme in my class on competitive strategy. The classic goal of strategy was finding a way to deliver a unique product that was difficult for competitors to copy. All kinds of entry barriers were analyzed for their ability to protect a business that delivered mouth-watering profits.
Today’s business environment is engineered differently. We’ve created the tools – for technology, operations, manufacturing, distribution, communications, customer service, etc. – that empower anyone with an idea and some motivation to build a product or a business and find a market for it. Innovation empowered!
The dark side of this innovator’s nirvana is that the same tools empower others to copy or, more likely, improve on an innovation equally quickly and inexpensively. “Business at the speed of thought” (Bill Gates’s 1999 book) soon became “disruption at the speed of thought” – not just copying an idea, but bypassing barriers, changing the basis of competition, and resetting customer expectations. Overnight.
Hence our focus on speed. Make money today because someone will be undercutting you tomorrow. “Disruption at the speed of thought” forces us to focus on what’s changing every day, instead of on the things that don’t change … like the customer needs, motivations, and passions that our products serve.
“Only the paranoid survive.” When engaging your customer feels more like speed dating than love, chances are you’re in the mode that Seth defined as, “We love our customers because they pay us money.” If this feels familiar, go back and start over. Start with the fun stuff, the stuff that doesn’t feel like work. Link that to the pride of craftsmanship that Steve Jobs described as the desire to create something insanely great, something that you care about, something that makes you happy. That’s where you’ll find the customer you do know, the motivations you really care about. Hold onto that feeling. That’s what Seth calls, “We love our customers, and sometimes there’s a transaction.”
Knowing your customers better than anyone else … because you care about what they care about, because you “get” them … is the ultimate competitive advantage. Yes, maybe your competitors can do that, but it’s hard and, to tell the truth, most of them don’t really love their customers. Make that your secret weapon.