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Who do you want your customers to become? A book review

a new eBook by Michael Schrage

When Tim O’Reilly recommends a book, I tend to scurry off and read it. So when he dropped a ‘share’ about a recent Harvard Business Review eBook from Michael Schrage called, “Who Do You Want Your Customers To Become?”, I was downloading it in seconds.

Turns out it was a good reco.

Schrage’s premise is interesting, describing, “how a simple question—who do you want your customers to become?  transforms strategic, marketing, and innovation insights. This question—what I’ll call “The Ask”—successfully provokes managers and entrepreneurs into reimagining, redefining, and redesigning their customers’ future.”

The book invites you to think about innovation in a new way: not as product innovation but by thinking of your customers as your primary innovation asset, then investing in them.

As I read it, I flipped back and forth between thinking, “This is really interesting’ and ‘This is just another way of spinning old ideas.’  When I was feeling the former, though, it did make me ask some fruitful questions about Velocity itself and our clients’ businesses.

Velocity’s ‘Ask’

In Schrage’s terms, Velocity is investing in its customers and asking them to become a different kind of B2B marketer. Everything we do – from our own content marketing to the way we initiate our projects and ramp up new clients – asks our clients to be the kind of B2B marketer who:

  • Understands the power of content
  • Uses analytics to guide success
  • Works hard to track marketing through sales to revenue

So Schrage would say we’re investing in client innovation. Makes sense. And put this way it does make me see things in a slightly different light.

I like business books that shine a light on things from a different angle and this one does that. For that alone, it’s worth the $3.99.

Shame about the cases

What I didn’t like so much — and it’s something thousands of business books do all the time – is the way it uses case studies.

Essentially, he does a tour of hugely successful companies and casts their success in his own terms.  So Apple was successful because, “Jobs clearly asked his customers to passionately appreciate great design.”  And James Dyson asked his customers “take a good look” at the dust accumulating in their vacuum cleaners instead of hiding it away in bags.

Well, I guess so.  But weren’t both Apple and Dyson simply appealing to a value that people already had inside them: a love of great, fresh product design?  Did they really ask people to change or did they simply appeal to an inherent desires and do it better than the competition?

I’m actually not convinced that Apple and Dyson invested in re-inventing their customers. I think they invested in great product design. This may be an old-fashioned notion but they did it in new-fangled ways.

Schrage keeps these kinds of examples coming and none of them convince me or make me believe his premise any more or less. It’s the kind of post-rationalisation that tends to make me throw business books across the room (an expensive proposition in the era of eBooks).

Apple succeeded by doing many, many things better than their competitors. Some of them were huge things – like leaping ahead and creating new product categories – and hundreds were tiny and invisible.  To reduce them to one simple idea is to strain credibility and detract from the power of that idea.

Still: good book; interesting idea; and worth a read for any B2B marketer trying to invent better customers.  If you read it, do come back and let me know what you thought.

 

Here’s Michael Schrage’s blog.

 

 

 

 

 

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3 Responses to “Who do you want your customers to become? A book review”

  1. Doug Kessler

    Michael Schrage, the author of the book, was good enough to reply to this review. He said:

    hi

    first, thanks for taking the time to read – and review – my ebook

    second, i appreciate the compliment(s) embedded therein and

    third, let me take three quick moments to address your (understandable) criticisms of the ‘cases’

    i am (largely) sympathetic to your unhappiness because – not unlike yourself – i agree that, first and foremost a james dyson and a steve jobs viscerally think more in terms of ‘new products’ than ‘customer transformation’….

    that seems indisputable….however….

    when you look at the interviews they’ve given (linked to in the book, i might add) it’s clear that either their thinking OR THE WAY THEY WISH TO COMMUNICATE THEIR INNOVATION?DESIGN PHILOSOPHIES effectively embraces the notion that they are, in practical reality, creating a ‘new kind of customer’ who holds different expectations than the ‘industry average’ or
    ‘typical’ customer….this is completely true for jobs both with pixar and, especially, apple….jobs explicitly states that his products are not not just about creating different ‘user experiences’ but different users, as well….dyson (who i’ve interviewed three times both in the UK and america) employs similar design rhetoric….

    you also see this in the ryanair example with michael o’leary…here’s a guy who really is the anti-herb kelleher in that his innovation investments revolve around lowering customer expectations ….

    my final point here revolves around tim o’reilly – the man (as you know) who coined the ‘web 2.0′ nomenclature… the success of google’s algorithms really does depend upon turning ‘users’ into ‘searchers’….google has created (literally) tens of billions of dollars in human capital that it’s web 2.0 ‘collective intelligence’ algorithms/business model allow it to successfully monetize…that’s a huge honking deal and one that i think tim immediately grokked (after all, his company’s mission is ‘spreading the knowledge of innovators’ – which is as much a human capital aspiration as a publishing credo….

    so, please, take two moments to think of the mini-cases presented NOT as ‘proof of concept’ or tautologies that prove the point my book was trying to make but as an alternative way of seeing/testing how value ‘truly’ gets created via innovation…

    i stand by the notion that truly successful innovations are investments in the human capital, competences and capabilities of their users….let me bet that is also a powerful way of viewing how you seek to transform b2b innovative relationships

    cheers & thanks

    :-)

    mds

  2. Doug Kessler

    Thanks for your reply, Michael.

    I do find your central idea really interesting and it’s made me look at our business (and our clients’ businesses) differently.

    I take your point on the case story front.

    What I object to is the implication that the customer re-invention was their intent rather then the effect of their innovation.

    Maybe my issue is the way cases are used in business books that present a new way of looking at the world.
    Your ‘ask’ asks us to look at innovation from a different perspective.
    But that’s not the same as innovating differently.
    I don’t see prescriptive behaviour change in the idea — but I do see a really interesting way to think about innovation.

    Without doubt, Apple’s and Dyson’s innovations (like all successes) had the effect of creating new customers.
    This does feel like a tautology. New products or features or innovations create new customers as soon as they’re bought.

    I had the same reaction to Gladwell’s Tipping Point – a book I really enjoyed.
    It’s easy to look at businesses that have tipped and point out all the things they did to achieve that.

    But what’s left out is the MILLION businesses who do almost the exact same things and do NOT tip.
    Unless we really understand what lies underneath that ‘almost’, we aren’t really learning how to make our businesses tip.

    Same with the Ask.
    Yes, Apple and Dyson asked their customers to become new kinds of customers.
    But so did hundreds of thousands of other businesses that failed.

    What I need to see is WHY Apple’s ask and Dyson’s ask succeeded when so many competitors failed.

    For me, the answer to this is in all the old-school values that make great businesses: looking harder at how your customers want to live and improving your products accordingly.

    I’m not sure how to get around this problem.
    I can see the need for cases in books like yours.
    But can you see why I find them unconvincing?

    Why do some asks succeed and others fail?

    [By the way, I'd love to add your note to the comments section of the review -- I do think our readers would appreciate your input -- I know I do! – Is that okay?]

    Doug

  3. Doug Kessler

    And again, Michael’s reply:

    thanks for your response here; yes, do feel free to post as a comment

    i accept your point on intent but only up to a limit: i do think and would argue that ‘customer transformation’ did become ‘an’ intent of a jobs, a dyson and an o’leary….i observe that their leadership languages/rhetoric and their innovation ‘changed’
    as they observed the real-world interactions of their customers and their products/services….

    you ask for a measurable differentiator? i think asking, ‘how do we create a better, more capable and more valuable customer?’is a different design question and leads to different outcomes than asking ‘how do we create a better, more capable and more
    valuable product?’…

    i hope you agree (and feel free to post this, as well…)

    again my sincere thanks

    mds

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