cafe mama

entering the mind of the married mom

Why business people need to get to know their customers BEFORE they build - April 18, 2004

Reading a recent article in the Wharton Journal, a world-renowned professor remarked that the attitude of the music industry to his research and analysis was dismissive at best, "This is how we've done things for all of these years, and this is what has made this industry great...they don't like MBA types coming in and treating music like a regular business."

In the types of businesses with which I have been involved in my short career, I have confronted this attitude again and again. I hear comments like, "why change it if it works?" and "don't mess with success" and "don't fix it if it isn't broken." Business people, especially entrepreneurs, often seem paradoxically unwilling to think outside the box.

How else can you explain the huge success of franchises? I'm not talking about McDonald's and Wendy's, although I think even those could be a good example. I am referring to little tiny unknown children's hair salons and sandwich shops and pizza joints and baby gyms. "X is making a profit, so if I just pay X $50,000 plus a percentage of all future revenues and purchase all the gear X purchased (probably from X's friends, with a kickback to X), then I will make a profit, too, and it will be better than anything I could have come up with." Does that make sense to you?

Even if I thought X was brilliant (and the X's I have researched are usually just marginally lucky people in businesses where, on average, costs are less than revenues), I would still just carefully study X's business, and X's competitors, and most importantly, study X's customers, negotiate for better prices and skimp where I could, and make a BETTER business than X. I think I could do it. Why don't most small business people?

Sure, I am well-educated, and I have a better-than-average level of confidence in my intuition. But I know I am not the only one to come up with intelligent insights into what customer needs are not being met. You all have been there. How about that time you wanted to order take out from your favorite restaurant but your child was sleeping in the car? There is a customer need: a runner to bring orders out to mamas at lunch time, take a credit card, and bring back a receipt. Advertise that service, and you will have every mama in my circle buying extra brownies and offering your servers fat tips. This would be a great service for all those non-drive through businesses: our favorite pastry shop, the toy store, the video rental place, Target (oooh, how I would love to have my diapers and wipes delivered to the door of my nap-mobile while I sipped Starbucks).

And how is it that business people with cool ideas so often have policies and details that alienate a huge percentage of their target clientele? Let's take children's businesses again. My favorite kid's restaurant, the one with yummy toddler-friendly food and a big play area, is never open when I am available. when I do manage to organize my schedule around their open hours, they miss all those mama-friendly details - they need to bring me my bill as soon as they hear my son starting to melt down. They need to ALWAYS remember special orders (like, no chips because he won't eat his lunch if he sees chips) and NEVER forget mama's coffee. And never let balloons, dangerous to children who are of the age to try their new teeth on everything, bounce unattended around the room.

Toy stores that close at 5:55 p.m. (what about the poor parent who works 'til 6:30?); playgrounds that shut down at 4 (ummm...don't working mamas need to get out of the house sometimes, too?); yoga studios that offer mama & baby classes but no childcare once baby is no longer willing to sit all still and zen; and all those other businesses that lock their doors at one minute to six, no matter how plaintive the knocking of the customer who drove around for 15 minutes looking for a parking spot.

The big problem in customer service is that so few businesses actually ask the customers about their needs. Ask any business owner what his customer wants, and you can bet he will have a pat answer. But ask him how he knows it? Most will look at you blankly. They just know. Yeah. And that was what the customer wanted 10 years ago, when franchise X was established, right?

Let's start thinking outside the product. Your product might be "better." But that's not what matters. It matters if lots of customers need that betterness. It could be so simple; most business owners could build a better product just by making something that they, themselves, need. That's what we do: we figure out all our problems, and if we can't find a quality, well-priced, easily accessible solution, then we figure out how to make it.

Can you only imagine the revolution if ALL business people thought like this? We wouldn't have any more cookie-cutter Subways and Quizno's. We'd have Gretchen's Kitchen, where the sandwiches are really delicious and the soup is homemade. We would have no high fructose corn syrup, that tastes too sweet and makes America fat (oh, but it's cheap). We would have fewer menu items and more menu satisfaction. We would have lots more drive-throughs and businesses that were open 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 to 10 p.m. We would have software with fewer cute help animations and more functionality. We would have lots of IMAP and no POP email. RSS readers would have been built on a search metaphor instead of a feed metaphor. Play parks would be open until the latest possible child's bed time, and they would have gates and lots of places for parents to sip lattes in full view of their happy children.

I wake up every morning wishing that I had more time and money to make all those things I want. Can't some of you get working on it? I have a list of things we (the customers) need that's a mile long. I know if you build it, I, for one, will come.