Creating Value from the Misery of Others
The unspoken goal of innovation is to delight. In their delight, the user or recipient of the innovation validates the efforts made on their behalf to dispel their problem. For an innovator the joy comes from recognizing pain, suffering, heartache, or confusion and then conceiving of and designing something that takes that misery away. If necessity is the mother of invention, then necessity can be one mean mommy, because innovation requires a challenge to address, and by its very nature, innovation has misery at its root.
To feel envy is human, to savor schadenfreude is devilish.
- Arthur Schopenhauer
Recently there was a slideshow post at the Huffington Post about the top consumer complaints to the FTC (the Federal Trade Commission, a United States regulatory body ). Over the course of 2010, the FTC received a total of 1,339,265 complaints filed. That’s a whole lot of unhappiness. When I first read this list, given my background in customer service and technical support environments, I was not surprised. It included such complaints as credit card charges, prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries, and identity theft (No. 1 by an 8 percent margin).
As I considered the list, I began to think of this as a great opportunity for innovation. Any one of these areas could be a huge goldmine for the willing innovator.
Something grim this ways comes
It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move on to better things.
- Theodore Roosevelt
What about the industries with the highest number of customer complaints? Well, let’s go to the data. At the top of the list are cellular telephone vendors, equipment manufacturers, and network providers. Given the ubiquity of these highly complex devices, seeing this industry at the top of the list is not surprising. What is more interesting is the fact that banks are near the top of this industry survey, too—ahead of collection agencies and used car dealers. The increasing complexity of available services for consumer banking combined with a less-than-transparent approach to fee implementation might make this an area ripe for transformation.
But the most compelling data from an innovation opportunity perspective is not which industries reside at the top of the list. The greatest opportunities lie in those industries with the widest margin between customer complaints and the percentage of complaints that are resolved. That is the place of greatest pain. That is also the place where there might be rich human experience that could feed innovative solutions.
The banks’ attempts to resolve the customer issues see them at the peak. By addressing 100 percent of the complaints within 30 days, they’re not leaving much room for customer attrition. While the cellular phone companies have the most complaints, they are also doing a fairly decent job of addressing customers’ needs in a timely fashion. It’s those companies who deliver large physical products (cars, used cars, furniture) who seem to be failing to resolve customer issues quickly enough. Based on my customer service experience, I see a significant opportunity in this space to convert customers through service and support innovation.
Make the pain go away. Make a customer for life.
The enduring unhappiness of the unfulfilled need
What people need and what they want may be very different.
- Elbert Hubbard
Clayton Christensen described the inherent need behind any successful innovation was a particular “job-to-be-done” by a customer. Here is an article in MIT Sloan Management magazine that highlights the theory behind the approach. The job-to-be-done theory holds that products and services are most successful when they connect a circumstance with a job that customers need to get done. By identifying those jobs people really care about and developing products and services that make it easier to achieve these jobs, companies can identify new markets that they were previously unaware of or that could not be uncovered by traditional market segmentation. The key ”a-ha” is that jobs-to-be-done are actually an indicator of customer pain and frustration.
When you look at the number of complaints in the segments above, you can choose to see a whole world of hurt. An innovator will see something different: They choose to see a realm of possibility.
Complaints arise from an unmet need, which often may be simply resolved, except the customer doesn’t know how to access the solution. Sometimes those needs may be quite complex, revealing a gap in functionality or utility that should be closed. Regardless, each and every complaint represents a unique opportunity to fulfill a job-to-be-done. If these needs remain unfulfilled, not only is the innovation opportunity lost, but the unhappiness will extend to the vendor of the product or service as they lose a customer.
In this light an unfulfilled need is a contagion spreading from customer to customer, and from customer to vendor, the result being a flight to the next possible alternative.
WTF? vs. “Can you hear me now?”
Art is not only about angst.
- John Corigliano
Those enterprises that seek to exploit the deficiencies in their market segment often make significant strides against their competitors. Take Verizon Wireless. (Full disclosure: the parent company, Verizon, is a client.) One of the greatest complaints about mobile or cellular telephones is the poor service reception and the inability to hear calls. J.D. Power and Associates conducts a semiannual study measuring wireless call quality based on seven problem areas that impact overall carrier performance: dropped calls; static/interference; failed call connection on the first try; voice distortion; echoes; no immediate voicemail notification; and no immediate text message notification. Verizon Wireless saw that improvements in these seven areas would yield a significant return on investment, and so they began innovating to directly address these issues.
The result? Verizon Wireless began leading the way in call quality improvement, which gave rise to their decade-long advertising campaign with the enduring tag line, “Can you hear me now?” (The campaign was only retired in September 2010.) Perhaps a more compelling reason than age for the end of the campaign is that shifts in wireless phone usage, including smartphone and texting use, as well as an increase in the percentage of wireless calls being made and received inside buildings, has led to a halt in overall call quality improvement. This already has Verizon Wireless’s eye focused on a new complaint: the limitations of mobile bandwidth. Can you say, “Hello, 4G!”?
Whatever complaints your customers have, don’t disregard them. Take them for the gift they truly are. Because there’s opportunity in their misery, provided you choose to do something about it, and soon.
Andrew [Drew] Marshall is the Principal of Primed Associates, LLC, a consulting firm based in Princeton Junction, New Jersey focused on improving the culture of innovation within their clients.