When Apple took the iPhone prototype to Verizon, for a possible network deal, the carrier rejected it.
In early 1990s, Diamond Bank introduced the first integrated banking system in Nigeria, enabling customers to operate their accounts from any of its branches. Before then, it was usual for customers to travel hundreds of miles, from one city to another, just to withdraw their money.
Apple and Diamond were disruptive in their respective markets. Their offerings are quite different, but they have one similar characteristic: they pursue Customer Perception.
We learn in elementary economics that organizations must work hard to meet the needs of their customers. But meeting customer needs is not enough. You must exceed needs if you want to remain relevant. Technology disrupts the habits of the customers so quickly that if you focus on needs, you will never be an industry leader. You can’t keep early adopters loyal by just meeting their needs. They want more from you.
They want you to understand their expectations. Even if you have met their needs, they want more. Your heating customers want green solar energy, but all they can afford is dirty coal so that is what you give them. You have met their immediate needs, but they expect you to do more, quickly. Agile firms serve that expectation and retain their customers.
While expectation can help you stay in the game, top firms meet the perception of customers. Perception is the king of business. Unfortunately, few firms get to that level. Perception is providing to customers what they never expected or imagined they needed. But the day they see the product or service, they will embrace it en mass.
Apple plays at this level. Did you think you “needed” an iPad before you saw one? Apple provides products that exceed expectation; customers rarely ask for them. They just arrived and we all embraced them. Why did Verizon reject the iPhone? There was nothing to benchmark iPhone with. Products that create a new category do not need focus groups or surveys during development because those insights make no sense. Unless the product is ready, many customers cannot imagine it.
Then what are the benefits of meeting your customer perception? They include having a loyal, profitable, and early adopting customer base. Nurture the customers and you will disrupt your market. And it keeps happening. Last week, Apple unveiled a thinner MacBook Air that dispatched physical hard drives for a solid-state flash storage, bringing the era of hard disk crashes to a welcome end.
How can you master the game of Customer Perception? Follow these guidelines:
Seek unconventional insights: You must not depend on the same report everyone uses. I have recommended a 15-year-old to lead a social media project, over a college professor.
Get future studies: Get into partnerships with institutions that undertake the tasks of trying to understand the future across all industries or economies. In most cases, they see patterns before everyone else.
Form a diverse team: In this era, many things are interconnected; you need a team with diverse backgrounds and life experiences.
Study the Zen masters: Business biographies of Sam Walton, Steve Jobs, and their peers provide plenty of insights.
Create an open culture: You can’t develop game-changing ideas unless your culture that encourages them.
Take risks: How else can you create what doesn’t exist?
author/Ndubuisi Ekekwe. originally published in Harvard Business Review