Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Uncompromising Promises

Uncompromising Promises

Aaron Levie

Have you ever used a product or service and thought, "damn, that experience was amazing"?

It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's thanks to a company that has made and upheld an important promise to its customers. Oftentimes, this promise has endured management changes, economic instability, and even industry disruption. In all cases, the company has refused to compromise.

A promise isn't specifically about a company's stated vision, values, or competitive differentiation. All organizations have platitudes on their websites and brochures about unparalleled service, excellence, and quality. But how often do they deliver on these commitments?

Let's take a look at a few examples. The United Airlines core value states, "We are committed to providing a level of service to our customers that makes us a leader in the airline industry." However, a simple surveying of Twitter exposes a litany of customers that don't quite agree, and they consistently score the worst satisfaction ratings in America.  Contrast with Virgin America, whose core value is roughly the same, "Our goal is to always provide you with an unforgettable experience that adds value to your trip." Now take a look at the corresponding opinions about their patrons' experiences or industry accolades.

All companies – from startups to established enterprises – should understand their uncompromising promise. In short, "above all else, our customer will have this kind of experience." And some of the best promises out there aren't ones that were made explicitly.  With Apple, for instance, we have an expectation that every product we buy from them, or every interaction with one of their retail outlets, is going to be world-class.  They barely even have to tell us that this will be the case.  It's a promise that they made to consumers implicitly through their continued actions. 

And when this promise is maintained, it allows customers to put far more faith in your product or service, without having to consistently remind them to do so. Within hours of the iPad being announced, companies had dedicated engineering teams to developing software purely on speculation that it would be a revolutionary device.  With zero units sold, thousands of companies bet their time and money on supporting a product with no traction, simply because they knew it would be revolutionary. In the case of Apple, the uncompromising promise is for the highest product quality and experience; for Amazon it's vast selection and low price; for Square it's beautifully simple commerce; for Spotify, it's instant access to near-unlimited music; Rackspace's is fanatical support in the esoteric field of web hosting.

In all of these cases, existing customers, and often even prospective customers, know why these services are so much more spectacular than their rivals. And given that most of us gain little pleasure in searching for new solutions to problems – be it online shopping, or how a retail store processes credit cards – making and maintaining this kind of promise gives customers ample reason to stay.

Easy to say, much harder to do.

The challenge with promises is that they need to be delivered end-to-end. If a customer experiences something counter to your promise, this contradiction often overrides all the areas where the promise is met. 

This is why when we navigate and select an item on Zappos (whose promise is to provide the best service and the best selection), they let you checkout instantly; when you call for support, they pick up immediately; and a large portion of purchases are overnighted for free, everything with a 365-day money back guarantee.  This attention to their promise is never once compromised throughout the shopping (and returning) experience, which translates to vastly more satisfied and loyal customers.

What if you're just starting to figure out your promise? First off, remember: the more you have, the lower the likelihood that you'll nail them. United has 12, Apple publishes few. Also, avoid biasing toward what you already do today. Instead, think about it through the customers' eyes, and what they would value most, and what existing competitors offer the least.

It's only when you disproportionately invest in building and maintaining this promise that you will stand out. When you've really landed on something special, profound, and desired by the market, customers will do most of your marketing on your behalf.  No Apple advertisement in the world has convinced me to buy their product; it's the consistently-realized expectation that I'm going to like what I buy from them for the various jobs I needed to be done.

The good news is there's no shortage of dimensions that you can afford to be relentless about: different markets and different customer-bases all value quality, customer service, price, speed, and simplicity differently.  If I want a cheap phone, I can go Android.  If I want an elegant phone, and am not price-sensitive, I'll go with the iPhone. For instance, MemSQL, a start up in San Francisco, promises to deliver the world's fastest database.  Not necessarily the cheapest, but the fastest. And their customers are going to rely on that promise being held, which may mean it only attracts a certain kind of customer.

What matters most is that businesses maintain these promises in the market. When your promise is broken, it spreads fast.  In the case of promises being held, these interactions equally pervade our communications with others.  And in a world where success or failure of a product or service can be decided overnight, focusing on delivering this promise – in every industry – is more important than ever.

Regularly checking your product and services to ensure that these promises are met is critical.  Continually redefining what it means to maintain your promise – this requires a constant attack on anything thEdat doesn't contribute to your promise, and constantly adding new capabilities that do.

What is your company's promise?

Edited by: Lawyer Asad

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