Delivering Products and Services Customers Really Want
Many business professionals believe that delivering value to customers merely involves issues of products and services. World-class companies make the extra effort to clearly distinguish products from people, place, and processes. Though it’s not easy to place any multifaceted experience in simple, separate buckets, thinking critically can open up opportunities that can give you a competitive edge.
Leading businesses see all the variables in what they offer. Although the focal point of any purchase is the ultimate product or service, you must also pay attention to many other variables if you wish to stand out among your peers.
Focusing on products and services while clarifying other aspects of the service delivery tool is challenging, especially when there can be a gradation of the products and services themselves. For instance, a hospital’s primary role is to improve the patient’s health. Prescribing medications is one part of that responsibility, but the medication as a product is separate from the service of prescribing the medication. In other words, you can prescribe the right medication, but if the in-hospital pharmacy fails to fill the prescription correctly or deliver it properly, then the experience can be severely compromised.
Or take the example of renting a hotel room. Though most might view the room as the product, other things also support that hotel room experience—towels, shampoos, bedding, clock radios, ironing boards, and so forth. None of these lesser items is the primary product or service being rented, but because they all contribute to the guest’s experience, it is best to also consider them as products. World-class companies consider secondary products to be part of the product package.
Westin offers a great example of how a world-class organization pays attention to such matters. After a thorough overhaul of its approach to branding, it committed to improving the entire sensory experience of its guests. It began an ongoing campaign that includes secondary products, such as scented candles in the lobby. These brand-expanding new products have become product lines of their own—the Heavenly Bed, the Heavenly Bath, and even the Heavenly Dog Bed. Note that these products are not limited to the original product—the room itself. It’s the attention to these related details that helps differentiate the company in the marketplace. In fact, this effort made such a difference in the industry that Westin’s competitor at the time, Marriott, traditionally the leader in hotel innovation, followed suit with its own Marriott Bed and other retail products.
Creating Tangible Memories
Ultimately, your brand will be associated with whatever products you deliver. Think about the bigger picture: How can you better leverage your product to create additional benefits for your organization? The goal is to make your tangible item a reminder of the superior value of that experience—so whenever your customers see that item afterward, they re-experience the positive memories and want to return or refer your business to others. Of course, there are several facets to consider when creating your own tangible memory:
• providing competitively superior products and services
• impressing through visual design, display, and packaging
• balancing quality and quantity
• balancing choices and streamlining
• providing product support
• continually improving your product.
Let’s examine these in more detail.
Providing Competitively Superior Products and Services
You’ve probably met individuals who have brand loyalty—Chevy over Ford, for instance. Enthusiasts may be able to tell the difference by the car’s body shape, but the vast majority of car components—think brands of air bags or fuel injection systems—are much less obvious to the typical buyer. Are these kinds of details a true differentiator that can cause one organization to stand out over another?
Differentiation is one way you can add value—and influence customers to pay more for your product. Though customers will not ignore price, many factors influence a customer’s choice. How do we create additional value and a competitive edge? By listening to customers and understanding them via the Customer Compass, and by taking action to align and improve the product based on that definition. World-class businesses understand that ultimately, the customer defines what is different and better, and what really matters.
Impressing Through Visual Design, Display, and Packaging
Great organizations often find creative ways to design, package, and display their products. They follow proven design principles to package in a way that gets—and keeps—the attention of the potential customer. Some organizations are even finding ways to be more environmentally savvy in their packaging to appeal to growing environmental interests.
Imagine that your product was so beautiful that people treated it like a piece of art. The genius behind the sensual look and feel of products made by Apple is Jonathan Ive, its chief design officer. Apple products are such beautiful sculptural pieces that they are featured in the permanent collections of museums worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
According to Ive, it’s really about making a product accessible, not intimidating. As he sees it, the consumer is surrounded by multitudes of products made by companies that really don’t care about their design. When these companies don’t care enough to focus on these details, their customers can be easily lured away (Kahney 2014).
The same is true for the presentation of the product. If your product is unique, shouldn’t you also display it in a unique way? Notice how differently organizations like Walmart and Apple display their products in their stores. The desired brand experience of each company has a strong influence on that decision. Regardless of packaging details, one common truth is that cluttered packaging and displays can reduce the product’s desirability. When a product isn’t readily accessible, the customer’s investment of time and effort increases—undermining the value of the experience.
The virtual world has its own set of challenges regarding presentation. As with the physical world, the best product can be poorly showcased online. The same foundational issues exist regardless of which industry your business is in; you must follow strong design principles to package in a way that draws strong attention to the product.
Balancing Quality and Quantity
The word quality suggests superiority of some kind—a degree or grade of excellence. Quantity generally means “a specified number or amount.” Generally held principles of economics indicate a correlation between supply and demand. When uncontrolled, an increase in quantity can often result in a lack of quality. The general public often assumes that fast food restaurants selling convenience meals at a low price will have products that are poorer in taste—and possibly even unhealthy. In contrast, a particular sports car’s lack of availability compared with other (more available) brands can lead to the impression that the less available product is in higher demand and, therefore, of much better quality.
Is it possible to successfully balance quality and quantity to optimize brand value? Walmart, which has consistently been at or toward the top of the Fortune 100 firms for decades, is perhaps the best example of focusing on quantity and selection in its markets. Walmart’s emphasis is on offering quantity discounts over high-quality products. Conversely, when Steve Jobs came on back on board at Apple, the first thing he did was focus on improving the quality. Several other companies are extremely successful regarding product quality-versus-quantity concerns as well, considering that popular lifestyles and a sense of happiness revolve around the products sold and marketed by these companies.
An example of balancing the quality-versus-quantity challenge is Cracker Barrel. For many, the humble theme of home-style cooking really speaks to those who want an old-fashioned meal. It offers a simple paper menu with dozens of choices to choose from. For many, including Baby Boomers, Cracker Barrel has leveraged its casual “made from scratch” charm and grown its chain to 653 restaurants in 45 states (Trefis Team 2018).
But although it’s been a successful experience, its attraction isn’t for everyone. More discerning palates, particularly in urban areas, don’t necessarily align with the sit-down Cracker Barrel formula. So the same restaurant chain has created a Cracker Barrel-flavored experience for those with slightly more refined tastes. In the ever-growing quick casual experience, Holler & Dash serves a much simpler, healthy but homespun menu of dishes and sides, while still remaining true to a home-style focus on biscuits. Gone is the cluttered store as you enter. In its place is a very clean look and feel, with simple incandescent lights made out of mason jars and a counter reminiscent of a wooden barrel.
There are obvious differences with respect to how the parent Cracker Barrel company is directing its brands toward different target markets. To do this effectively requires purposeful intent on how they want to distinguish themselves. Every business has to ask these questions: Is your emphasis quality or quantity? What are your customers looking for when doing business with you? You must make that decision and do so strategically in alignment with your values, vision, and mission.
Balancing Choices and Streamlining
One common business belief is that customers want options. The general thinking is that the more choices a customer has, the likelier it is they’ll find something they want and purchase it. However, the most successful businesses have discovered that too many choices can make it difficult for customers to sort through it all—adding confusion and ultimately undermining sales.
A classic example of this is Apple’s re-emergence in 1997. Its product line had become cluttered with a range of choices that were not effectively responding to its customers’ needs. When founder Steve Jobs returned to the company, one of the first things he did was streamline the product line. Even the logo went from a band of rainbows to a solid image. Everything was simplified to be more in line with its brand.
On the other hand, many online companies have succeeded because they are able to provide a range of choices that a standard “big box” store could not keep in stock. Identify what works best for the products you offer and create a balance between choices and a streamlining of the experience.
Providing Product Support
Think about how your customer will begin using your product—are there instructions? Have you put one of these products together yourself? This is where walking in the shoes of your customer is critical. It’s amazing how a simple thing like poor instructions can create a frustrating customer experience—even when the product is otherwise very strong.
There are many ways to provide product support, from the purchaser to the manufacturer. Organizations offer toll-free numbers to call centers that answer questions from customers all over the world. Perhaps the most famous one is the Butterball Turkey line started in 1981, which offers last-minute directions to novice household chefs everywhere. This product-support initiative generates tremendous goodwill and bolsters public relations for the organization every holiday season. This is in marked contrast to other toll-free numbers that lead to long phone trees and difficult-to-understand service representatives.
In recent years, online support has become the king of product support. Many organizations have made it into a small profit-making arm, charging for support, or getting customers to buy an additional product support package at the time of their purchase. Other companies offer complimentary product support as a way to differentiate their product from others. The critical thing is to provide not only product support but also customer-centered support that really adds value to your product.
Continually Improving Your Product
Great organizations are always engaged in the quest to improve their products. Technology in particular has become too much a part of overall corporate success for its effectiveness to be left to chance. That said, no matter how complex your product is, managing quality is mandatory for retaining customer loyalty. In the last decade, process improvement initiatives have become more prevalent. Here are some of the more familiar of these programs:
• SPC—Statistical Process Control, pioneered by Walter A. Shewhart in the 1920s and applied by W. Edwards Deming during World War II. Its success is based on monitoring processes through data control charts.
• The ISO 9001:2015, which is maintained by the International Organization for Standardization, is primarily a family of standards for quality management systems.
• Lean Manufacturing/TPS was mastered by Japanese businesses and then promoted by Toyota (which calls it the Toyota Production System). This approach focuses on creating more value with less work. Curiously, when Toyota benchmarked the production process in the United States, its staff found the best solution not in other automotive companies but during a visit to a Piggly Wiggly supermarket, where they saw how the stores only reordered and restocked goods once the customers had bought them.
• Six Sigma, a methodology for improvement shaped by companies such as Honeywell and General Electric, seeks to identify and remove the causes of defects and errors in both manufacturing and business processes. Its name comes from the notion that if one has six standard deviations between the mean of a process and the nearest specification limit, practically no items will fail to meet the specifications.
• Agile is a quick-time, iterative approach to delivering improvements (initially created for software development projects) that emphasizes small teams aggressively identifying “user” issues then incrementally addressing them in short two-week cycles (iterations) from the start of the project, instead of trying to deliver it all at once near the end. As of 2018, most Fortune 100 companies have implemented Agile initiatives with the aim of reducing costs and improving quality.
These recognized and proven quality-control programs are rising in popularity as more technology managers are looking for ways to help remove degrees of risk and uncertainty from their business equations, and to introduce methods of predictability that better ensure success. These are no longer mere company- or employee-driven initiatives. Customers are now invited, via the Internet, to be part of their product improvement programs. Enter the serial number for your John Deere product and you’ll have access to benefits from these kinds of programs. Similarly, Adobe launched the Adobe Product Improvement Plan to allow more interactive feedback as part of the test-and-adjust software development phase. The program is akin to user groups, focus groups, and participation in prerelease programs.
No matter your product, you must continually improve it for your customers. You can produce excellence with people, place, and process, but if your products or services are significantly lower in quality than your competition’s, you will eventually lose market share. Your product is probably the primary reason you went into this business, so it is a very important component of the overall customer experience. And remember, your customers determine the criteria for your success, so you have to get it right—on their terms.
Next Steps for Building the Brand Through Your Product:
How do your products and services offer a tangible memory and experience?
How are you competitively distinguishing your products and services in the marketplace?
Have you considered how you’ll balance the number of options and offerings you provide? How are you strategic in doing so?
How can you create a compelling look and feel with your packaging?
What are you doing to make sure your products and services are continuously improved?