How to be your Own Customer
I was brought up with the advert featuring Victor Kiam, head of Remington Products, in which he said, “I loved the shavers so much I bought the company.” Some things haven’t changed since the 80s. A decade or two later, Will King created King of Shaves because he was allergic to foam shaving products. The moral of the story: many entrepreneurs start companies out of the frustration of not finding what they want for themselves and create products they love or need as customers. Approaching a business this way, customer service becomes the essence of what you do rather than a nice extra. The customer is your core compass in making decisions.
I started both my businesses because of an unmet personal need: Coffee Republic because I couldn’t find skinny lattes and Skinny Candy because I couldn’t find guilt-free sweets. So in both businesses the focus was entirely on my own needs, ie the needs of the customer. We worked backwards from there. Every decision was driven by the question, “As a customer would I want this?” To be honest, there was no other insight we could afford. Market research and focus groups were too pricey.
But as our business grew, we hired more big company types and slowly lost that wholehearted customer focus. We focused on customers as all companies do, but not in that unique entrepreneurial way. It became “us”, the company, trying to sell things to “them”, the customers.
Why? The new people weren’t hired because they loved the product. They were hired because we could now afford to give decent salaries and it was a fast-growing, exciting business. Where did their loyalty lie? To their immediate boss, to the appraisal system and to the org chart, of course.
I hired a hot-shot marketing director from a household brand and was excited to work with him on new products. From the moment he arrived, all he did was tell me why such and such idea would not work because of extensive research commissioned at his previous job. It was classic in-the-box thinking. In the midst of this, I saw that he was bringing a cup of Costa (our UK competitor) in to work every morning. I assumed he was tracking some new thing they were doing as it was customary to visit competitors. But, no: his commute didn’t take him past a Coffee Republic. He admitted he hadn’t visited a store for two weeks. I was mortified. What could be more important that visiting stores, trying the coffee and searching for inspiration?
This is a pitfall faced by many large organisations. As the structure grows, the people on top grow further and further away from customers and the real needs of the business. I recently attended a breakfast with Sir Terry Leahy, formerly of Tesco, who mentioned that by the time the CEO gets market reports from customers, he gets only the fairy tale, i.e. the information goes through so many filters that it becomes happy fiction.