Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Customer at the Center; Reader in a Corner

Rama Bijapurkar usually offers a perspective in the mundane. She has traversed the world of marketing, research, consulting and boardrooms making her perspective richer and rounded. She has taught students at IIMA who are un-merciful, irreverent and questioning - adding much to the perspective. Rama can link up the frequency at which her yoga instructor appears at her house his use of motorbike versus a local train to his business model; she can provide insights to his changing practices in the light of recession. Her uniqueness is in making these not-so-obvious linkages to present a customer to a product centric corporate. Her first book “We are like that only” opened up the Indian consumer in a way that had not been done in the past. This book continues along the journey of understanding the customer better.

The core of Rama’s argument is that businesses tend to get into a comfort zone of offering a solution. They are looking for customers willing to buy the offering. It is unusual for the businesses to think from the holistic customer experience and reflect on their offerings. Who occupies the boardroom? The market research agency or the [usually male!] customer?

If the customer is the core then board-room conversations should move to a different plane. Instead of asking “why are customers not using our service, or how do we get the customers to purchase our service” the board asks “what is the customers’ end-to-end experience and how does our product/service enhance the experience?”

Rama takes the South-West Airlines example to define the customers as those who travel - not just air passengers. How do you get the people who drive between cities to use the airline? If the value proposition is shorter commute to the airport, reliable service, then do you need lounges, business/economy segmentation and pre-allocation of seats? Thus, the business identifies a segment that does not emerge from the customer experience of “air” passengers. So, do corporates fall into the trap of defining customers and offering differentiated services to them or look at the picture of “issues in transportation” trying to find a solutions to fill such gaps in customer experience?

Rama offers several such examples. What do we need in a good hotel – functional facilities like a shower, Wi-fi, gym, clean sheets, two restaurants and minimal room service? Or a painting, Jacuzzi and a tub in every room; with a swimming pool and multiple fine dining restaurants? How can a business provide a better value proposition to the cost paid by the customer? Once businesses obsess with the value for the customer buck, the markets expand and segments break barriers.

Though positioned as a book on strategy its core is marketing. As a book on strategy it should have taken the holistic view of a business and argued how these strategies deliver consistent and superior share-holder value. The book does not mention profits. It is implied that customer based strategies deliver shareholder values. While her criticism about Indian business is that they “always say ‘yes, yes this is the main thing, I agree. But what is the harm in also doing a bit of that as well?’ It ends up usually like the sign in a restaurant we drove past recently: ‘Pisces Seafood Restaurant [appetizing picture of a tandoori fish] specialists in vegetarian food also’”, her book also falls victim to the criticism she renders. It looks scattered.

The book could have been an easy read, but it is not. It is chatty, with scattered [anonymous] examples trying to prove a point. Anonymity makes it difficult to understand the context and relate to the illustrations. There are several passages that read like: “Here is a case study that illustrates this confusion: We once worked with a well-known FMCG company in the business of household cleaning. Their product range comprised of a brand of antiseptic, that we will, for this discussion, call Dash-Dash antiseptic liquid, Dash antiseptic soap [both on the ‘kills germs’ position] and a brand of toilet cleaner that we will call Hiss.”

Rama does not give the real name because of consulting, confidentiality and contractual interests. At the same time the example is important to make a point. If I don't know if this Dash-Dash antiseptic liquid is Harpic or Domex I lose the context. While there are the usual Nirmas, Nokias and the Hero Hondas that come up from the public domain for discussion, her own consulting insights are shrouded in generality and anonymity. For somebody trying figure out a new paradigm of customer insights, this effort looks wasted.

This book is one more instance of the editorial failure of Sage publications. Apart from the usual typos, editorial inputs on the general style of rendering would have made this book a delight. The importance of the book is lost in chatty irritation, while the customer quietly slips out of the boardroom as time stressed board members struggle with the style!

Customer in the Boardroom?
Crafting Customer-Based Business Strategy
Rama Bijapurkar
Sage [Response Business Books]
pp.232. Price Rs.495

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