The relevance revolution
[Y]ou’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it ... And as we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, it started with ‘What incredible benefits can we give to the customer, where can we take the customer?’ Not starting with ‘Let’s sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and then [ask] how are we going to market that?’
THE BEFORE AND THE AFTER
It’s impossible to write a book on recognising opportunities to innovate and creating ideas that fly without mentioning Apple. While it might be hard to see your business story reflected in that of the most beloved and valuable company in the world (now worth a record $700 billion), and while you might be tired of seeing Apple held up as the gold standard for everything, the way Apple has innovated holds clues for every business. We are used to commentators talking about Apple as a design-driven organisation, but much of this discussion fails to highlight the company’s real strength and unrelenting focus. Apple, it turns out, is not in the product and service design business—it’s in the customer creation business. Steve Jobs, Jony Ive and Ron Johnson didn’t start with the idea for a product; they began by thinking about whom it was for and what mattered to them.
Just as the best stories change the people who encounter them, the brands, businesses, movements, products and services that succeed by being meaningful change people, too. There is a life and a way of being before the product or service existed, and a life and a way of being after it.
Before Apple introduced iTunes, people waited for CDs to be released and shipped. Before Nespresso, people paid for coffee by the jar or went to Starbucks. Before Kindle, we needed bookcases and packed one or two books to take on holiday. Before Wikipedia, encyclopedia salesmen sold thick tomes that would be out of date by the time the working-class parents, who wanted better for their kids, had finished paying for those books in instalments each week.
Before Google—can you remember life before Google, with paper maps, telephone directories, bricks-and-mortar everything and keeping information in your head?
Every successful business creates a new kind of customer. That customer’s story changes because the business exists. There is a before-the-product story and an after-the-product story. The change that’s brought about doesn’t have to be as monumental as the changes that companies like Google create; they can be small shifts in attitude and perception, nearly imperceptible changes in habits that become rituals over time. Enhancing your products or services might signal advancement and feel like progress, but if there is no change in the customer, there is no innovation. What happens because your product exists? Or as author Michael Schrage would say, ‘Who do you want your customer to become?’
Before [your product], people did. After [your product], people do.
PERFECTING THE WINGS
There’s something magical about the experience of taking a blank sheet of paper and being able to make it take flight with just a few careful, strategic folds. The art of paper plane making has been used for generations, not just to prototype big ideas and lofty innovations—without the humble paper plane, there might have been no Wright brothers’ first flight—but also to teach children about engineering, physics, possibility and small miracles. With one or two simple folds, a child learns that her actions can affect her results and that the way she builds something matters.
The point of the exercise isn’t to demonstrate the potential of a sheet of paper (although that is pretty cool); it’s to show the plane maker what her efforts make possible.
Your business is that blank sheet. The kind of plane you build depends on how and where you make the folds.
Success isn’t guaranteed even if you make the best plane in the world. John Collins spent three years perfecting his paper plane model, the ‘Suzanne’, in the hope of claiming the Guinness World Record for the longest paper airplane flight. He did indeed have the best paper plane in the world, but he recognised that he didn’t have the best throwing arm. It wasn’t until he partnered with Joe Ayoob, a former college-football quarterback, in 2012, that the pair broke the record that had stood since 2003.
On their own, the features and benefits of your products and services, no matter how good they are, cannot sustain your business. It’s only when they affect customers in the marketplace that meaning is derived from them. Success is not what you make, but the difference that it makes in people’s lives.
Our purpose is not to make the best planes with the perfect wings; it’s to make things that enable people to be better versions of themselves—and to show them their wings. The best products and services in the world don’t simply invite people to say ‘this is awesome’; they remind people how great they themselves are.
RELEVANCE IS THE NEW REQUIREMENT
I will never again see the taxi driver who picked me up from JFK airport. He doesn’t need to worry about the impression he leaves when he tries to overcharge me for a fraught ride, without a seatbelt in a dirty cab, and he doesn’t care if it’s me or one of a hundred other visitors that he sees in his rear-view mirror tomorrow. Contrast that with the experience delivered by the Lyft app, which is disrupting the transportation industry around the world by connecting drivers with people who want a ride. Lyft knows when I last booked a car. They know who drove me, exactly how long it took, where he dropped me off and, most important, how I felt when the journey ended and I left my review as the driver pulled away.
When I return to the same hotel for the third time in eighteen months, the people at the reception desk ask me again if this is my first stay with them. How is it possible in 2015 that the receptionist doesn’t know? She tells me, with a smile, not to forget the ‘wine hour’. Free wine for an hour every night before dinner is obviously the highlight of many a trip. So why am I expecting her to know that I don’t drink wine and to understand that her comment is completely irrelevant to me?
My Airbnb host meets my oldest son so that she can give him the keys to her apartment to prepare for the arrival of the rest of the family in Sydney the following week. They have a cup of tea together and she discovers that we love good coffee and might use the local gym, so she plots the great coffee places on a map, stocks up on Nespresso pods, and leaves her gym membership card out for us, just in case we feel like using it.
I can roam the floors of Barnes & Noble for hours on end, and not one assistant will make a recommendation to me because they have no idea what kinds of books I might be interested in. Amazon’s business model is built on knowing exactly what I want and giving me as many shortcuts to that as possible.
When I was growing up in the ’70s, our local butcher knew which cuts of meat my mother would buy on any given day. He knew when we had visitors from England and when money was tight because of how my mother’s shopping habits changed. He made a mental note of that kind of information so that he could use it to better serve her, and he did that for every one of his customers.
Ironically, progress, growth and innovation led customers not to expect that same level of personalised service anymore. For several decades, while giant corporations dominated the business landscape and monopolies reigned, customers were treated like a homogenous group to be talked at and sold to.
Today there is a shift. Technology is helping us to once again embrace the values of a time when business was about seeing the individual customer. But it’s not the technology in isolation, particular platforms or specialised functionality that’s driving the change; what’s driving this new wave of relevance is the humanity of the entrepreneurs and business owners who create the products and user experiences that people love.
Technology is not just taking us forward—it’s taking us back. It’s giving us back the ability to better understand our customers so that we can be not only useful, but also important to the people we serve. Upstarts like Lyft and Airbnb are stealing a march on their competitors not just because they have information about their customers, but because they are intentionally building organisations that use that information to create better experiences—ones that make people feel good and give them a story to tell.
As customers, what we crave more than the commodity we think we are paying for is to be understood. What we want more than a reliable ride to our destination, a comfortable bed for the night, or even a book we can get our teeth into, is to really be seen. What we want more than responsive organisations is personal relevance. The value isn’t just in the data that businesses collect. What counts is how they use it to make our lives better.
Not so very long ago, the title of this section would have read ‘relevance is the new remarkable’. But relevance is what we have come to expect. It’s the minimum requirement for doing business now. And the flip side is that you don’t always need an app for that.