Remember Who You Are

Tips to set yourself apart from the competition

“Remember, you’re a Ryan.”

Marti and I say this to each other frequently before we head out the door. Ryans have a code of conduct (honest to goodness, we do!) and when we go out in the world, we need to remember who we are.

I have spent many years consulting with professional service firms, and some of them have forgotten who they are. They run themselves like product businesses instead of focusing on their differentiator: their service.

Big mistake.

I blame some of it on the business press. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was founded in 1896 by the same guy who started the Wall Street Journal. Manufacturing and business media practically started life as twins.

I blame some of it on scaling. It’s easier to scale-up production; just run the assembly line longer. But it’s hard to scale-up service because it depends on people. Think of all Hurricane Sandy’s stranded airline passengers. Service doesn’t scale easily.

But I blame most of it on firms themselves. Very few of us are pure service companies; most of us are product-service hybrids. So it’s tempting to focus on goods-based questions like optimization and efficiency.

But for many of us in our early days, we differentiated by innovation or by our levels of service. Remember Gateway’s cow-inspired boxes? Or Dell’s first online, customized ordering menus? Like many product-service companies, both suffered from their own success. As Geoffrey West explained when he visited the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery in October, nearly all growing companies get so big that feeding the bureaucracy takes precedence over service or innovation.

Here’s one company that simply gets it right.

Zappos is not a shoe company. Zappos is a service business, and it differentiates itself with friendly staff, easy ordering and returns and lightning-fast delivery. In other words, Zappos differentiates with great service. Zappos’ brilliance is that it’s in a timeless business; everyone for the rest of time will want to buy shoes. But rather than focus on building a better shoe, Zappos focuses on wrapping the customer in a terrific experience.

If your company is trying to figure out how to differentiate in a more competitive field, here are three trends and one timeless nugget that will create new opportunities:

1.) Big data. Ninety percent of the world’s data has been generated in the past two years. IBM is staking its future on this new influx of information, and service firms need to figure out how to harness it for new innovation and service opportunities. From retail to financial services, from philanthropy to medicine, big data can fundamentally improve the services we offer.

2.) Product + Service + Experience. It wasn’t long ago that computer companies decided they needed to add software as a service to increase their value. And soon after, each company added a “user conference.” This magical trifecta, product + service + experience, is one way to avoid commoditization pressure and continue to innovate.

3.) Is there an app for that? Your clients are used to elegant interfaces and apps. And now they’re accessing information on multiple devices. If your website looks great on a desktop PC but crappy on an iPhone, you’re losing serious mojo. And if you should have an app, but don’t (restaurants, I’m looking at you), you’re going to lose out to those that do. Bonus points if your app looks as great on the iPhone as it does on the iPad.

4.) Delight. Even the most plate-faced curmudgeon will light up when a little something extra is included.  Lube stations that wash or vacuum your car, banks that serve hot cookies, books that arrive with handwritten thank-you notes from authors. These are not “hip.” They are timeless. And in our ever-busier society, they are small gestures that slow clients down and remind them that you care.

Next time you step out the door for work, remember who you are.

Rebecca Ryan is founder of Next Generation Consulting. Her new book, ReGENERATION, hits the bookshelves this year. Contact Rebecca Ryan at rr@nextgenerationconsulting.com.

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