One of my greatest passions in life is music.
Not so much playing it, mind you. Yes, I can find my way around a piano and bash-out something that (in my mind) sounds a little like Teddy Wilson, or Meade Lux Lewis. But I haven’t the time – or the dedication – to get my fingers to play out loud what I dream of playing in my head.
No, what I mean is the act of listening to music (not to be confused with having something playing on in the background while you’re doing something else. That’s not listening to music – that’s removing background silence). I buy and listen to a whole heap of music pretty much every week and, like many, I’ve found that my tastes have not only matured, but expanded.
When Apple, followed by Amazon and the rest, first offered us the ability to buy a single track from an album, both artists and record companies were up in arms. Hearing tracks out of context of the album distorts the message that the artist is trying to make, they would say.
Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve bought far more than my fair share of CDs on the strength of hearing/liking one track, only to find that the rest of the album is unlistenable. Today, I can hear the entire album in advance before deciding on whether to part with my hard-earned money. Artists and record publishers have grudgingly complied, because that’s what it was going to take for us to continue to buy from them.
It’s No Longer About Whatever You’re Selling,
It’s About What They’re Buying.
Sellers used to be able to dictate how their product or service was going to be sold. When asked about in what colors the Model T motor car was going to be available, Henry Ford replied “Any color you want, as long as it’s black.”
Today it’s clear that, as customers, we increasingly want to buy things our way. Maybe that means buying music as high-resolution audio tracks that are higher-than-CD quality, or sneakers in custom colors.
If you’re building your product or service based upon the way that you think that customers are going to consume it, ten will get you five that you’ll be in for a nasty surprise. It’s because customers want to buy things their way. In terms of the structure of the perceived upfront commitment. In terms of the choice that’s presented. The frequency of update, the packaging, the discount – and the option to change all of the above.
Why do DVDs, BluRay disks and video games consoles still use region encoding? Why do I no longer “own” the books I buy? Why do hot dogs come in packs of ten, while hog dog buns come in packs of eight?
How much longer are consumers going to allow manufacturers to sell on their own terms? My guess is not for much longer.
The Customer Chooses The Format
If I buy a book, whether it’s ink on paper or bits and bytes, I expect to own it. I don’t want my cellphone plan to be 100 minutes, 500 text messages and 500MB of data. Maybe I want 60 minutes, 50 texts and 2.0GB of data. Similarly, I want to pick and choose the exact TV channels that I get on my cable or satellite contract. I want to fly with your airline, but I want my rewards miles to be credited with someone else.
It seems inevitable that the customer will ultimately decide upon the combination of products, services, and vendors that’s right for them. The services themselves will be commoditized – I don’t really care who my cellphone provider is, for example, as long as I get good service / coverage / pricing.
In return for this flexibility and simplicity of choice, they’ll be a premium to pay. And that’s fine with me.
The End Of Engineered-Obsolescence
Have you heard of the 2010 film The Lightbulb Conspiracy?
Today, manufacturers build stuff that won’t last, so that we have to go and buy new stuff every so often. TVs are designed to last 2-3 years before the screens give out. Apple ships a new iPad, with double the CPU performance, just seven months after they introduced the previous version. Your home inkjet printer stops working and you’re told that you’re better-off dumping it and getting a new one, rather than paying someone to fix it.
This can’t go on. Physical items that we bought ten years ago lasted longer than the stuff that we buy today. This is so wrong, on so many levels. Manufacturers say it costs more to build stuff that lasts. I call “bovine excrement.” Customers are not going to tolerate being forced to ride the upgrade treadmill for much longer.
I’ll Fix It Where I Want
Manufacturers will no longer have a say in where customers get stuff maintained, serviced and repaired. Commoditization of services will mean that customers are free to get upgrades and spare parts from 3rd party suppliers. More than that, customers will expect the right to tinker under the hood themselves, if they so wish. Walled gardens are all very well, as long as you’re on the right side of the wall.
Why has this time not come already? Because companies have a good thing going at the moment. They aren’t about to shoot themselves in the foot while no-one’s complaining that loudly.
Companies don’t like unpredictability. They like to reinforce customer buying habits and expectations as that’s what allows manufacturers to develop shiny new objects next year that replace the what we’ve bought today. Old-school manufacturing is about maintaining – and reinforcing – the status quo. About aiding, developing and strengthening predictability, rather than meeting the needs of the customer
Such thinking worked for a generation, or more. But today the writing’s on the wall. Customers are no longer predictable, and businesses need to wise-up.