As a futurist, I’m often asked by business leaders how to stay ahead of their competition in a fast-changing world. Many of these leaders think it’s about embracing some new technology, understanding some future trend before anybody else in their industry, or creating an innovative product.
Those might all be useful, but it starts with something else: understanding your customer and serving their needs.
You might think that’s nothing new! After all, business has always been about serving customer needs, right? Yes, that’s true. But customer needs have changed.
In the past, business success was much easier: Understand your customer’s problems, and fix them – better than anybody else can.
But that simplistic approach doesn’t work anymore. First, you have far more competitors than ever before, so it’s more and more difficult to be better than anybody else.
More importantly, customers have changed, and they expect different things from you and your business. Solving problems is just one of the things that attracts customers.
Broadly, there are six things you do for customers – which means six levels of dealing with their needs.
1. Saving Them From Crisis
In any industry, most businesses help customers who have problems, but only a few help customers who have a crisis. It’s not always easy to do this, but if you choose to be one of those few, it can give you a strong market share.
For example, I know a mortgage broker who has built a very profitable part of her business helping people who can’t get a home loan through the normal channels. The major banks and most mortgage brokers won’t touch these clients, because they are “difficult”, so they are not very profitable. But this particular broker has targeted these clients, and knows how to help them while still staying profitable in her business.
The trouble with helping customers in crisis is that – if you do your job well – you don’t necessarily get a lot of repeat business. So it’s difficult to build a business only on these customers.
2. Solving Their Problems
This is the classic kind of customer for most businesses: somebody who has a problem for which you can offer a solution. In most industries, this is the largest chunk of customers, and the easiest to target with your marketing. But it’s also where you will find the most competitors, so it’s the most difficult for you to differentiate yourself.
If your business strategy involves helping customers solve problems, good! That’s a good start. But it’s only a start, because everybody else is doing the same thing. So the only way to keep competing in this area is to be better than everybody else – and that’s getting harder and harder. A better option is to diversify into the next four areas.
3. Achieving Their Goals
The first two levels – crises and problems – are about fixing pain points for customers. The next level is about helping them achieve their goals. You’re still helping them with a gap in their life, but this time it’s aspirational and positive. For example, you don’t buy a $4,000 Burberry trench coat because it keeps you warm; you buy it because you believe it shows prestige, status and class.
Many people are more motivated by pain than pleasure, so many businesses in an industry focus on solving problems. It’s not as easy to reach the aspirational customers, and they might be the smaller segment of the market. But they can be more rewarding to deal with and more loyal to your business.
For example, the healthcare industry has traditionally been about solving problems: healing “sick” people. That’s a multi-billion dollar industry that won’t go away any time soon, but it’s being seriously challenged by savvy startups who focus on “wellness” rather than sickness – with things like fitness trackers, nutrition apps, and online communities for people who are taking responsibility for their own health.
4. Giving Them Opportunities
Steve Jobs, former Apple CEO and a great marketer, once said, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them”. This isn’t a blanket rule, but it’s perfect for thinking beyond most of your competitors. The perfect example, of course, was the iPhone, which fast became a “must have” item for many rich Westerners – most of whom had never even thought about carrying a computer around in their pocket until they saw the opportunity.
You don’t have to be a Steve Jobs to fit into this category. But you do have to think differently about your products and services. Look beyond what your customers need and want, and consider what else you could offer them. What would be so compelling that they would jump at – even if they had never even thought about it before?
5. Supporting Their Values
It’s no longer enough to just provide great products, services, and experiences. For many customers – especially younger generations like Gen Y (Millennials) and Gen Z – it’s equally important that the businesses they support also supports their own values. They care about your political views, workplace culture, views on climate change, and personal brands of the owners. These customers have more choices than ever before, and want to know about your values before they choose to do business with you.
For example, TOMS shoes is famous for their “One for One” philosophy: For every product they sell, they help one person in need. This is not just a marketing gimmick; it’s a core part of their business. As another example, when Uber suffered from negative media coverage about parts of its leadership and workplace culture, it lost thousands of customers instantly.
Right now, most businesses don’t talk about their values, and don’t think customers care. And many of them are probably right – for now. But this is changing, and if you truly want to be fit for the future, be ahead of this change.
6. Sharing Their Mission
There’s one level that’s even stronger than shared values, and that’s a shared mission. Customers who share your values will support you, but customers who feel strongly about your mission or cause want to be a part of it. They don’t just give you money – they give you time, energy, personal exertion, and the value of their networks. They are not just “customers”, but act more like partners. Or advisers. Or volunteers. Or champions. Or employees.
For example, the residents of Monmouth, a small town in Wales, contribute enthusiastically to documenting the story of the town by maintaining the town’s Wikipedia-like site, “Monmouthpedia”. This is really the job of the local council, but the residents – their “customers” – feel so strongly about it that they do it themselves.
Who are the people you can bring along with you on your mission? You might start by looking at your most loyal customers and your strongest advocates, but look beyond them as well.
So what can YOU do?
At which of these six levels do you deal with customer needs? You won’t necessarily do all six, but it’s risky if you only do one!
Whatever you’re doing now, examine all six of them, and consider whether you can add them to your business mix.