The closer you are to your customers, the more relevant your product will be and the easier you make it for people to choose you. It may seem obvious, but the gap between those that do and those that talk is widening, despite the immediate bottom line benefits.
But more than this, companies that put usefulness at the heart of what they do become part of their customers’ lifestyle. It makes marketing an ongoing conversation instead of the stop-start engagement that characterised the twentieth century.
This makes it much easier for customers to come back, and keep coming back.
Who are you for?
Usefulness is best achieved by thinking about everything as user experience. If you start with ‘useful’ as a first principle, then back-solving means putting customer need and experience first. It means not getting lost in your own jargon, product development silos or legacy.
Designed for life
My experience tells me that the smartest approach to getting this right is to borrow from the playbook of user experience (‘UX’). While this is often associated with the Web, consumers who experience good UX online don’t switch off their expectations when they switch off the computer.
The principles and theories of UX have created a new normal in terms of brand delivery and interaction. They state that how people actually use your product is much more important than how it was intended to be used.
So, engaging your consumer in ongoing, iterative product development is more valuable than holding out for a ‘perfect’ product launch. It is far better to get started in a live environment and be prepared to change fast around the needs of the user.
As a result, consumers need to know what to expect from your product as well as what you expect from them. This means they need openness and transparency from you. If they make choices online based on honesty and credibility of comments, forums and communities, they’ll expect you to be a part of that same engaged and involved culture.
Today’s most successful ‘useful’ organisations are oriented around this ethos. Their feedback loops (listening to their customers) and iterative releases (frequent launches) make them more fluid, responsive and relevant than their competitors.
The height of this relationship is co-creation, where consumers are engaged to create the product or services themselves. From its beginnings as a local Chicago pharmacy more than a century ago, Walgreens became the largest drugstore chain in America. But by 2010, they were yearning to reposition themselves as leaders in wellness. Rethinking what it means to be a community pharmacy in the 21st century, Walgreens invited their customers into the process.
Consumers were given tours of Walgreens’ redesigned pharmacy prototypes and asked to share their hopes and fears about their personal health. Walgreens found that consumers were looking for simple, engaging, everyday ways to take better care of themselves. The company used that feedback to deliver an experience that reflected their commitment to staying useful to customers the ‘health and daily living’ store format, which they took from concept to in-market pilot in record time.
The stores integrated new roles, digital tools and spaces to help customers’ live healthier everyday lives.
A desk area in front of the pharmacy brings Walgreens pharmacists out from behind the counter so they can consult with patients one-on-one. Private consultation rooms provide additional space for immunisations, blood pressure readings, and other services. Web pickup services allow customers to shop online, and self-serve touch screen kiosks let them quickly refill their own prescriptions. Customers also have access to a staff member called a Health Guide, who is equipped with an iPad app loaded with health tips and FAQs. The new store format has been introduced in 20 stores in the Chicago area, and Walgreens is converting all its stores in the Indianapolis market.
Another example of bringing customers together to be more useful is the travel marketplace AirBnB, which provides a platform for apartment swapping. The ‘product’ is the customers’ own properties, while the AirBnB service facilitates the swap, including challenging issues like key exchange, cleanliness and safety.
Don’t always ask the audience
Being useful doesn’t always mean asking the audience. It’s fair to say that customers don’t always know what they want. Customers now play an increasingly equal, participatory and critical role in brand and business. But co-creation should not be accepted as a default solution to every challenge. Even when consumers do know what they want, empowering them to create it might not result in the most impressive solution.
Observing consumers is usually a more effective way of discovering unmet or poorly met needs, and can reveal hacked solutions that suggest real opportunities of how to be useful in the world.
This constant observation of customers fuels a sense of creativity and encourages co-creation, which often leads to small and valuable improvements, however, it takes a bigger vision to build an extraordinary business. Anticipation and observation, although riskier, hold out the promise of making yourself truly useful at a higher level.