Rage against the vending machine

It’s very easy to make the wrong decisions based on a lack of real evidence—especially if ‘best-practice’ takes over and we assume we know what our users and audience need. Throwing around some pop culture, I'm going to try and dig into the issue.

Business Opinion

Setting the scene

The other week, I was having a break from work and I bought a bottle of Coke. The drink was cheap enough and I didn’t think about it too much. As I was sipping my drink I was reading a recent news article on my phone and that got me thinking. Would I have paid for that article?

Both of these things gave me something I wanted whilst taking a break: one for my body and one for my soul. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have paid for that article but it made me wonder why. Was it the standard of journalism? Was it the abundance of news content freely available at my fingertips? Was it the fact that I couldn’t just pop a pound coin into a slot on my phone? I’m not sure. One thing that was clear to me was that I wouldn’t have paid for something I didn’t want. I wanted a drink, I knew there was a vending machine, I know what Coke tastes like, and I had enough change in my pocket to buy a bottle. Decision made. Job done.

As I came back upstairs and into the office, my mind was drawn to the selection of Pot Pasta samples that had been given to us through a free trial scheme. They had been there for weeks and it seemed that nobody had touched them. People have lunch every day in our office. Some people bring in soup, salads, or leftovers; some people walk to the shop around the corner to buy a pre-packed sandwich or a sausage roll; some people even pop out to a little cafe. Nobody had touched the Pot Pasta. Nobody wanted them. Even though they served the role of a small, convenient lunchtime meal. How come?

My cursory observation was that even though the food was free and convenient, not one person had been swayed to pop down to the kitchen, boil a kettle, and eat it. People do what they do at lunchtime for a variety of reasons, the actual food is only part of the picture.

Tasty milkshake

My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard

Professor of Business Administration at Harvard, a proponent of ‘disruptive innovation’, and all-round rad dude, Clay Christensen, suggests that we should see our products and services like our customers do, as ‘jobs to be done’. It might sound odd and maybe it is – when I bought my bottle of Coke, I wasn’t hiring for a job . . . (dramatic pause) or was I?

Christensen famously recounts a story about how a fast-food restaurant chain was looking to increase milkshake sales. The company had segmented its market by product and demographics, then conducted surveys with people who fit those demographics, asking them to describe their ideal milkshake. The company then took those responses and ‘improved’ their product accordingly.

Sales did not go up.

One of Christensen colleagues, a researcher, was hired to investigate further. The researcher decided to go to one of the restaurants in the chain to watch who was buying milkshakes, along with when, and where they drank those milkshakes. It turns out that 40% were bought by commuters first thing in the morning for their journey to work. Yes, they wanted something convenient to stave off mid-morning hunger but what they actually wanted was something to do on their commute to work. Really, they were just bored. They wanted something that would keep them occupied but not too distracted for their drive to work. A thick milkshake is tasty and can take a while to drink, so it fills the role perfectly. Milkshake hired.

As a result of this insight, the company decided to market a range of thicker milkshakes with more interesting breakfast-friendly flavours in the morning, and a range of kid-friendly, thinner milkshakes for the after school kids. Success!

You can’t always get what you want

But if you try (to observe, to listen to, and to understand your users) sometimes you might find you get what you need.

It’s easy to think you know your customers and your market but it’s very easy to make the wrong decisions based on a lack of real evidence. This is especially true in mature businesses and markets, ‘best-practice’ can take over and people become a slave to the process. Sticking to your business model will provide little comfort when the business has changed and your model no longer applies.

We have seen this recently with Toys R Us, Maplin, Dixons*; Blockbuster is the classic example of declining to change. Netflix even approached Blockbuster in the early days to form a partnership. Like a proverbial King Canute, Blockbuster commanded the tide to halt. Unlike King Canute, Blockbuster didn’t appreciate that the tide would still come.

*pick a former market leader

via Giphy

Wax on, wax off

So, throwing pop culture references around like they’re going out of fashion, hopefully, I’ve been able to make a point. It’s very easy to look at a mature market and see success and longevity, but we can become blinkered. Blockbuster failed precisely because it was the market leader – it had become a highly efficient, tightly defined machine, very good at what it did, very bad at what it needed to do: change. Unless we understand real people, human interactions, and what people truly want, we’ll struggle to create sustainable businesses and services that adapt to change and give people what they want.

Listen and be humble.

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