Friday, January 14, 2011

Strategic Planning Analogy #371: Strategy by Spying

Back in December, I visited the Museum of Communism in Prague. It was a very interesting museum. One display talked about all of the spying that was done back around the 1950s. The Communist governments in those days did not trust the loyalty of their people, so they continually spied on their citizens in order to assess their loyalty.

The museum showed examples of some of the spying devices used back in the 1950-60s. There was a special camera mounted onto a rifle frame for taking long-range photos. There were also all kinds of tape recorders. However, the most common form of spying was by just getting people to talk to officials about their neighbors.

This was a very expensive and labor intensive program, and the results were usually not very meaningful. Therefore, the spying on citizens by the Communist governments was eventually scaled way back.

Today, it’s a lot easier to know what’s on people’s minds. All you have to do is go to their Facebook page, listen to their Tweets on Twitter, or visit their blog. People today seem willing to volunteer all sorts of intimate details about their lives and their passions—for free. Burglars know exactly when it is safe to break into people’s homes because it is so easy to track where people are.

With data so easy to obtain, it kind of takes away the fun of being a spy.

The communist governments did not get a very good return on all the investments they made into spying on their citizens. Yet today, many businesses are following a similar tactic. They are, in essence, using internet tools to “spy” on their customers. It may be wise to ask if the returns on those investments are worth it.

In fact, customers are so willing to share a dialogue with businesses that it can hardly even be called spying anymore. This has led to a business strategy approach I call “Do Whatever The Customer Says.” The reasoning behind the approach is as follows:

1) Companies succeed by serving the needs and wants of the customers.

2) Customers know what they want.

3) Technology makes it easy to find out what they want. It’s hardly even spying anymore.

4) So use the technology to find out what the customers want and then give it to them. In other words, the strategy becomes “do whatever the customers tell you.”

Unfortunately, these premises are wrong. As a result, the conclusion is wrong. And just as the communists eventually figured out that managing a county by spying on their countrymen was not very effective, companies will eventually figure out that managing a business by spying on their customers is not very effective, either. Just because it is easier does not make it better.

The principle here is that although much benefit can be gained by staying close to the consumer and listening to them, this is not an effective way to create company strategy. There are two basic flaws to the “Do Whatever the Customer Says” approach to strategy.

First, companies do not succeed merely by serving the needs and wants of the customers. Instead, they succeed by having a viable business model. As we will see in a minute, these are not the same thing. Second, customers do not always know what they want, particularly when it comes to new and transformational ideas for which they have no prior exposure.

Therefore, if serving the customer is not necessarily the core of success, and the customer is not always knowledgeable about the best way to serve them anyway, then why put them in charge of determining your strategy?

Let’s dive into this a little bit more, to explain this in more detail.

1) Your Goals and Your Customer’s Goals are not Necessarily the Same
Customers’ goals tend to center around things like solving their problems, increasing their enjoyment, or enriching their sense of self-worth (status issues). By contrast, a company’s goals tend to center around things like making a profit, providing its investors with an adequate return on investment, or providing a great income (or status) for its management, etc. As it turns out, you can focus on meeting those customer goals (and succeed wildly), yet still not achieve the company goals.

For example, look at companies like Facebook and Twitter. Both are wildly successful at meeting an aspect of consumer goals. Large sectors of society love them and use them all the time. However, neither company is providing an adequate return on investment. And unless these companies change their business models, I highly doubt they will ever achieve an adequate return on investment.

At the current time, the Facebook and Twitter business models are broken. They will not lead to the types of returns necessary to pay back their investors at an adequate rate relative to the size of their investments (particularly the latest investments in Facebook brokered by Goldman Sachs). And, for the most part, the users do not care about the fact that Facebook and Twitter have broken business models. In fact, they like many of the reasons why it is broken, because the lack of adequate monetization makes the businesses “free” and more consumer-friendly.

Many of the ideas which have been thought of to “fix” the business models of companies like Facebook and Twitter require monetization schemes which the customer does not want. And the consumers have made it clear that if the business model is tweaked too much against them, they will bolt, en masse, to an alternative which does not impose those negative constrains on them. With all the cash-rich investors out their looking for the next “Facebook” or “Twitter”, a start-up with the old broken business model will be well funded and replace them, leaving Facebook and Twitter in the dust if they monetize improperly.

The point here is that just pleasing the customer is not good enough. Pleasing the customer does not necessarily lead to a long-term successful business. Businesses need a viable business model in order to succeed. And since customers really don’t care all that much about your business model, they are the wrong people to ask to develop that business model for you. Their advice will lead to a business model which maximizes their concerns, not yours. And that will lead to financial ruin.

Yes, a successful business model depends upon having customers willing to patronize it, so you cannot ignore their needs and wants. However, if your business model is solely based on doing whatever the customer says, it most likely will not succeed over the long haul. This is because their goals are not the same as your goals.

In other words, you cannot abdicate business model development to the consumer. You must control it internally. You need to make the tough decisions—the difficult tradeoffs—which balance the needs of the customers against the needs of the company. You cannot always give the customer everything they want, because they will want it all and they will want to pay less for it than it costs you to deliver it. These are tough issues to deal with, and require sophisticated strategic planning (and serious thinking time) to resolve. The answers will not come from a quick question broadcast to your customers.

2) Customers are Poor Sources for Transformational Ideas
The second problem with abdicating strategy to your customers is that fact that they are not the best source for creating something new within the unknowns of the future. Customers, for the most part, are focused on near-term concerns. The problems of today are more than enough to occupy their mind.

If you ask a customer what you should change to be better, most of the answers will be incremental improvements to what already exists. In other words, they can tell you how to tweak the status quo. However, they rarely have the insight to create the next great paradigm shift. Consumers have almost never begged for what became the next big revolutionary thing before it occurred. Consumers didn’t beg in advance for the Apple iPod business model or the iPhone Apps Store. Consumers didn’t beg in advance for the Google search algorithm. Consumers didn’t beg in advance for Facebook. They only reacted after it was presented to them.

Why? Customers are great at telling you what bothers them about things they have experienced. However, they are not that good about discovering things for which they have no prior experience. They have not yet experienced the future, so they are not good at articulating the best way to approach the unknown.

Consumers are too busy trying to live today’s life and cope with the current crisis. Their lives are preoccupied just trying to stay afloat while swimming in the current red seas. They are too busy to imagine for you some yet-to-be discovered blue ocean. If you find it, they may follow, but they will not find it for you.

Their job is not to preoccupy their time pondering revolutionary new ways for you to make money off of them in the future. They do not have the time nor the inclination to do so. That’s YOUR job. YOU need to devote the time and energy into envisioning a better future. You can use the customer as a sounding board to evaluate your visions, but don’t use them as the primary source of your vision.

Envisioning a radical new future takes the time and effort that will only occur if you proactively devote meaningful amounts of internal resources to that effort. It will not come by merely asking a question to your customers.

While it may be true that it is impossible for a company to succeed if it does not please customers, it is equally true that it is impossible to succeed if all you do is what the customer tells you. First, the company’s needs are not identical to the customers’ needs, so if all you focus on is the customers’ needs, you may not fulfill the company’s needs. Second, customers may be good at providing incremental improvements to the status quo, but they are not well equipped at inventing a radically new paradigm for you. Therefore, Strategic Planning should not be abdicated to the customer. This is your responsibility and you need to be proactive at it, devoting sufficient time and effort to the cause.

The Museum of Communism showed that even with all the power behind the communist system, it could not endure, because it was a flawed model. Similarly, all your power will not save you if you have a flawed business model. Eventually, you will fail like Communism. This task is too important to be left entirely to the consumer.

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