Friday, November 13, 2009

Thinking different: products as services

Back in the day, as part of the world's largest management consultancy firm, one of our partners used to routinely invoke the following pointmaker: People don't buy drills, they buy holes.

The thinking was like this: everything about a drill is configured around the idea of a product...if you are the manufacturer, the distributor or the retailer. You may have entirely separate business units for design, marketing and service of the drill. You most certainly have product beauty shots in your advertising.

But if you are the customer, the drill is a provider of a is part of a larger life experience...building a kitchen, assembling a swingset, hanging a mirror...drilling a hole. Experiences too numerous and rich to be captured in a single company department or in an advertising image with a mere 10,000 words in its vocabulary.

The partner's point was that reconciling these two views is important. Because if a product plays it's part in the customer's experience poorly--through ambiguous or incompatible relationships to the other parts of the system--then all the marketing and advertising in the world can't prevent a single product from suddenly carrying the entire burden of a poor customer experience...fair or not. Just ask Microsoft.

Now before you accuse me of going down the rabbit hole to pop-marketing-wonderland, please let me explain: I'm not suggesting that marketers abandon product thinking, or that every manufacturer of nails needs  to contemplate architecture in its marketing...I'm only suggesting that incorporating broader thinking about the customer system into which a product fits is an imperative for marketing.

Many of you already do this, and I'd be grateful for any thoughts and experiences you can share that would do a better job of explaining this matter than I can. For the rest, here's my shot:

Why should I care?

It's how people experience most of our products...Chemicals, couches...product choice is not what customers typically lack. Customers have a multitude of choices among a sea of oftentimes indistinguishable features and benefits. 8 megapixels, 12 megapixels...all that is lost if you can't figure out how to get the image from the camera to grandma. That's the system the product exists within...the service it is expected to perform.

Our colleagues are already doing it. An iPhone isn't a phone, it's a service for every occassion from finding red light cameras to evaluating the risk of your midnight sushi.  You don't have to be Apple though. Mattress Firm takes mattresses into the broader world of sleep. Business-to-business companies often design and deliver products as part of a service package that may include access to experts, supply or distribution services, financing or end user support.

No product exists in a vacuum (with the possible exception of vacuum bags).  At the most basic level, all products are tools...whether they help build self esteem or tear down a wall, tools exist in service to the task against which they are applied. As the nature of our tasks grows more complex and interrelated, products that provide service to the larger system will find new ways to stay relevant:  they may even end up being used in ways originally when a search engine suddenly creates the opportunity to become an advertising company or a computer enables a company to become a TV station...or movie theater.


The tricky part is tricky because it's easy to understand but difficult to implement. Systems thinking means changing the way the product organization works. Here's three of the biggest challenges I've observed for marketers:

1. Everyone owns the customer experience: Marketing has long professed to represent the customer. But product design + engineering, sales, and especially customer service are all responsible for understanding and delivering on the brand promise in the customer service system to which a product belongs. Cross functional teams may be better at owning the total experience than more traditional, specialized business unit silos. In all cases, specific and accountable individuals should be aligned and empowered with the experience. If you can't deliver beyond the product, don't let your advertising and collateral say you can.

2. Think of everything, act on some things: No organization, with the possible exception of the GoogleBorg, can successfully manage the entirety of a customer's experience. The first step, as they say, is admitting that. The second step is figuring out what can be managed. This happens when as much of the total system as possible is identified. What does the customer want to do? How do they do it? What other products are used (beyond the one we're selling)? Who do they interact with? Formally and thoroughly identifying and mapping the total experience system enables an organization to identify opportunities and priorities on which to focus. Marketers already have access to many of the tools, such as ethnographic and other market research, for helping to map the system.

3. Be yourself: Behind every marketer, product manager or engineering title there is a real person. And every real person in any capacity at a company has a story about a product's failure in their personal experience. From the home entertainment system with five remote controls to packaging that requires a jackhammer to open. Asking how one's own products can remove unanticipated angst from the customer's lives isn't being cynical or negative...when it's accompanied by ideas for improvement, that's innovation. And like the customer experience, we all own innovation.

Marketers have a critical role to play in helping their organizations move beyond product thinking alone. Fulfilling that role might require marketers to think like someone other than marketers on occassion.

How do you think different?

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