David vs. Goliath: How can you beat a giant who owns the market?

photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/morris278/
photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/morris278/

Be more like Amazon Fresh, and Less Like The Phone Company

Becoming a verb for consumers is a sign that your company has made it. Google it. Just Uber It. When your company’s name becomes the shorthand for a great customer experience, customers know that they will get a consistent, reliable product or service that meets or exceeds their expectations. Great service delivery feels different to the customer, either because it’s a brand new service that builds new habits and behaviors, or because the service delivery reorients the customer to expect better, more personalized service. Can you use great service to unseat a market leader, even one that has a near-monopoly?

“Green field” opportunity – A Brand New Game

Changing a relatively new market (think: Internet search in 1996) can happen relatively quickly. Google’s market dominance happened because their search product was so much better than the substitute and there wasn’t a de-facto monopoly in place that consumers had used for years (or decades).

Changing a more entrenched market like the market for taxicabs, phone service, or grocery shopping is much more difficult because the average person has been using these services as they exist for a long time. What are the characteristics of a service or product that can disrupt such a monopoly, and what does the actual service delivery feel like for the customer?

Getting a Taxi Shouldn’t be Hard

If you’ve ever really needed a taxicab and had trouble finding one, you’ll like Uber. Uber took a long entrenched, but previously reviled experience – calling a taxi – and transformed it into a premium experience for the everyday. Uber has gone beyond what you’d typically expect of a car-dispatch service and makes your smartphone a remote control to magically summon a ride.

Uber is great because when you use it, you don’t have to know how they made car service delivery easier. You just know that when you launch the Uber app, there are cars shown on a map near your location, and when you summon them they appear in just a few minutes at your location. Paying for your service is already handled, and you can spend more time thinking about what you’re going to do at your location than figuring out how you will get there.

Winning the Customer’s “Mindshare”

Businesses that want to disrupt highly consolidated (but not strictly monopoly) industries should start by looking at existing businesses to see they are addressing the customer experience. One way to compare the traditional approach and a newer version that’s more like Google or Uber is to review the customer experience for two everyday services. Wireline phone/internet service and grocery shopping are two services that meet this criteria.

I recently ordered phone and internet service from CenturyLink – an established company that started as one of the regional Baby Bells – and did so because it was the only service available. The initial ordering experience was ok, and the company agreed to install the service on a particular day. I signed up to do part of the installation as a self-install process (connecting the DSL to the existing computer system), and away we went.

On the day of installation, CenturyLink arrived within the allotted window (3 hrs) and no DSL modem had arrived. The technician did not have a DSL router available, and was able to complete the rest of the installation. There was only one service level available and no way to upgrade the service. The technician was pleasant, but seemed overbooked and wasn’t able to get me the part that I needed, preferring instead to order it via an overnight service (the local office was only open until 3pm).

Overall score: Meh. Granted, I would have preferred to just avoid CenturyLink and use a cloud based internet service, but none yet exist because of the physical requirement to bring a wire into a building. In addition, my preferred provider (Fiber + Cable) was not immediately available in the building. The thing that could have made my experience great – the ability and willingness of the service provider to go above and beyond what was expected – also didn’t happen.

Lessons Learned: The Traditional Approach

Here are the service lessons I learned from this traditional service delivery by “the phone company”:

  1. when you don’t offer options, the customer is frustrated – I wanted more service and was not able to get it from this provider. There were no customization options available for immediate upsell.
  2. guaranteeing a service “window” is not enough for today’s customers – I’m now spoiled by the “Uber experience” where an SMS or push notification lets me know the provider is on the way.
  3. asking the customer to do some work is hard when the service delivery is broken – I couldn’t do the work the service wanted me to do because the hardware wasn’t available at the time of the install and the technician did not arrive with extra examples of this commodity hardware.
  4. if you don’t tell a story of what will happen, the customer will make up their own story – CenturyLink gave little detail on the itemized list of items and the process for finishing the job, so it was really hard to know when it was done or if it was being done well.
  5. make sure the first line of defense has some way of responding to exceptions – I expected “good to great” service and got “fair to middling” service – the mismatch was jarring.

What customer takeaways can we make from CenturyLink’s experience delivery?

  • You can’t (always) get what you want – there are physical and regulatory constraints that may keep a business the way it is and are difficult to change.
  • There is always a service component that can be better – the technician may not have known what was possible and therefore didn’t want to get in trouble by making an incorrect decision – if the service process and exceptions are well known up front.

“Honey, I’m going shopping for groceries – where’s the list?”

Grocery shopping is another service where the service delivery has remained largely unchanged for decades for most consumers. The basics are simple: drive or walk to the store, pick out your items, pay for them, and drive or walk home. There have been some contenders to change this idea (Webvan, Peapod, and others), and they have largely been niche services in tech centers.

Amazon Fresh is a new take on the idea of grocery shopping, giving you almost instant grocery delivery and letting you order from your home or office from an online grocery catalog. The ordering experience was instantly familiar – it felt just like Amazon’s other services – and I immediately thought, “why haven’t I grocery shopped like this before?”

Adding items to my cart was really easy with Amazon Fresh, and the selection seemed really large. The search bar in particular made me think that the selection was nearly unlimited (even though a few searches revealed that it was not as large a catalog as it felt) and I was able to complete all of my shopping in a few minutes. One interesting facet of shopping online is that I was able to see the result of the cart and adjust the items to get above or below a dollar amount, and I started to think harder about the cost of the individual items.

Amazon gave me an incentive to increase my order by posting a shipping upgrade in the upper left-hand corner of the page, letting me know that I could become a “Big Radish” by spending over $300 in this order (I didn’t make it there) and “win” free shipping. During checkout, I also had the option of adding suggested items to the order, but not in a hard-sell kind of way. One of the most innovative features they offered was the opportunity to change my order after it was placed. Instead of pitching the service as “modify your order” Amazon messaged this as “forget something in your basket?” reminding me of the experience of leaving the store having forgotten to buy something on the list.

The actual service delivery for Amazon Fresh was really painless. The driver arrived at the appointment time, brought all of our items in branded Amazon insulated bags, verified the items against the pick list, and left. Having the entire grocery shopping service done in just a few minutes felt like a huge win. Overall score? FTW.

Tech-driven Service Delivery FTW

Here are the service lessons I learned from Amazon’s take on grocery shopping:

  1. provide several service options with seemingly unlimited customization – this was a clever hack that allowed me to pick many options from the available service times and many items from the catalog in a way that felt almost unlimited but actually was the normal schedule and catalog.
  2. show up exactly when you say you’re going to show up – I set an appointment time, and they showed up. Done.
  3. if you ask the customer to do something for you, make it a high-value activity – Amazon asked me to identify which items should be on the list that they picked from the warehouse and because I picked exactly what I wanted, I felt satisfied that the same items showed up on my doorstep.
  4. help the customer feel more comfortable by being transparent about your quality checking – because we used the same list to verify the order, it was easy for both the driver and for me to know the job was done.
  5. give your service providers a strong procedure and help them know what to expect – even though Amazon Fresh hadn’t delivered to the location before, there was a very tight procedure that the driver followed to deliver a great experience. I knew what to expect and so did the driver, so it was a lot easier to meet or exceed my expectations.

What sort of experience can you get when you focus on customers – as in Amazon’s grocery delivery business?

  • You can (always) get what you want – you don’t have to go to the store, and you don’t have an unlimited selection or supply, but it’s pretty great.
  • Much of the service component is built into the business – leaving less pressure on the providers to make a heroic effort to respond to unexpected exceptions.
  • You can wow the customer – add unexpected benefits like specials, product samples, or “thank you” gifts as part of your retention and loyalty business.

Service is the Secret Weapon

If you want to build a sustainable service business at scale and want to disrupt the monopoly-like leaders who are already in place, what can you do? You can follow the lead of Amazon, Uber, and Google to change service delivery so that it’s focused on personalization, timeliness, and excellence. You can build a system that asks the customer to help, and delivers value for the help. You can drive down costs – especially in an area that’s hard for the incumbent to match. And you can build a brand based on the promise that “it just works”. You’ll know you’re there when customers use the name of your company as a verb to describe the process they love.

What’s a Community Manager’s Secret Weapon?


About 18 months ago I wrote a post on generosity, the secret weapon of a community manager. And since that time one of the best places that has emerged for conversation about Community has been the Facebook Community Manager’s Group.

The conversation above is a great reminder of the power of community, of the obvious (and not-so-obvious) tricks of the trade that allow community-minded people to provide great service to their customers and to maintain their professionalism at the same time.

The suggestions from community managers (and like-minded folks) fall into two main camps:

  • Understanding and communicating with the people involved in a conversation;
  • And having a plan that extends beyond the hair-trigger time of clicking “send” or “post.”

Communication doesn’t involve just making sure the right words are in place; it also includes “listening”, “patience”, and “assuming good intentions.” I’d add to this list “placing yourself in the customer’s shoes” and “trying to look for the solution, not the problem.”

And tactics need to include something beyond what you’re doing at the moment. This group suggested “Planning”, “Work-from-home”, and “Strategy” as important tools in the Community Manager’s toolbelt.

So what’s the secret weapon for a Community Manager, really? The willingness of the community of other community managers to provide advice, friendship, and suggestions.

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