The Press, March 2005

"I never get the accountants in before I start up a business. It's done on gut feeling, especially if I can see that they are taking the mickey out of the consumer." Sir Richard Branson famously once said. It's this respect for the customer that is at the core of the success of Branson and his Virgin branded enterprises. Taking a truly outside view of your business can deliver some profound insights and spur real growth.

Many companies will say they are customer focussed. They have a customer relationship management system, create customer satisfaction measures, even enshrine customer centric values in their culture. But as customer relationship guru Patricia Seybold says there is often something missing - the big picture. "They may think they're taking the customer's perspective, but they're really focussed on the point at which the customer comes into contact with their company. That touch point is certainly important, but it's rarely the centre of the customer's experience. It's just a waystation on the road to a broader goal."

For example, airlines focus largely on filling planes. But for business travellers particularly the journey is not simply airport to airport but hotel to hotel, and the flight is only part of the solution. Your flight experience might be great, but your overall experience is influenced by a lot of other factors - lugging your bags through security, waiting for a taxi, finding some local currency, finding the hotel etc.

To return to Richard Branson, Virgin Airlines are an organisation that understands this concept. Last year I caught a flight from Washington in the US to London, England as a business class customer. Virgin had a driver pick me up from my hotel and take me to the airport, help check my bags in, check my tickets and then do the reverse when I arrived in the UK. They understood that my view of the trip was from start point to end point, not just airport to airport, and provided additional services to improve my overall experience.

Many companies in complex industries like the technology sector struggle with taking this external view of their business. For example, some technology companies are fond of calling their products 'solutions'. From the customer's point of view a technology product is rarely the whole answer to their problem.

An accountancy software company might say it provides a 'financial solution'. But for the customer they see it only as an element of the "solution" to their financial issues - they might have an accounts person who does accounts receivable/accounts payable, a bank manager, an online banking facility, an accountant, tax adviser etc. The financial 'solution' is not that at all, it's only one of the tools to address the customer's issue.

This is one of the key reasons that technology companies get so frustrated with the sales process. They throw their hardware or software over the wall to the customer and let them try and work out how it would fit in their business. At a technical level the customer has many questions to answer before they can assess if it is the right product for them - hardware, operating systems, networks, security, architecture, management and upgrades. At a business level there are even more - return on investment, process changes, staff culture challenges, administration issues and so on.

None of this means that the accounting software company should become a full service chartered accountancy as well. It simply means being aware of all aspects of the customer experience, and understanding where you fit. Then you can assess what additional things you can conceivably offer to provide a better experience than your competitors. But how many technology companies have even developed a simple full cost spreadsheet that they sit down with the customer to complete?

So what steps can you follow to build an outside view of your business?

  1. UNDERSTAND THE BUSINESS YOU ARE IN - What you actually do for the customer i.e. what need of theirs are you fulfilling? Do you make them more effective? Do you help grow revenues? Do you improve communications with customers?
  2. CREATE CUSTOMER SCENARIOS - Draw all of the possible steps (from the customer's perspective) that the customer goes through to meet the need you have identified in step 1. Colour in your contribution and understand what you can and can't help with
  3. UNDERSTAND THE SOLUTION - Even if you don't provide everything you need to be aware of who is providing the other parts and make sure that it all comes together for the customer. Decide what you will do and don't do and who will provide the rest.

"Marketing is the whole business as seen from the point of view of its final result, that is, from the customer's point of view", says business thinker Peter Drucker. Great marketing, marketing that generates real growth in your business, is driven by taking this truly outside view of what you do.

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