Diamonds May Be Forever - But That's Not What YOU Sell

We all know that diamonds are incredibly popular and immensely valued as gifts when received by women.

Why is this so? I believe that the main reason why diamonds are such a treasured gift is that men, to be frank, don’t give a damn about them. We simply don’t like jewellery: it is an absolutely appalling waste of money for a really frivolous and tiny thing.

Which is why it is such a sincere gift: You have just spent a lot of money on something that you personally don’t care about, which can only be altruistic and a sign of your true love and devotion. After all, didn’t De Beers coin the phrase that “Diamonds, like love, are forever”? Yeah… right.

Strangely enough, if you buy your wife the complete video series of MythBusters or Ultimate Survival on DVD, or a brilliant drive-around lawnmower, it raises suspicions of self-interest, and therefore the value of the gift is somehow diminished.

In today’s conventional wisdom, within incredibly competitive markets, we accept that t*he customer is number one* and the most important entity in your business, we believe that in order to beat your competitors you must offer something unique and distinct, (although doing so has become incredibly difficult as companies offerings become incredibly similar,) and conclude that the only answer is to differentiate through branding, service and personal memorable experiences. The logic of this argument really appeals to me, and as someone with a vested interest in promoting these concepts, I have to accept that they are sometimes – maybe most times – true.

But to focus on these without looking at the reality of most companies’ circumstances and practices, I think we sometimes exaggerate the importance of being “special.” This is dangerous because for most companies in many industries there is a focus on the wrong things. For example, how many customers do you think feel like they are “number one” in your business? Maybe one percent? If you ask any customer about their latest bad experience, they will tell you about one of many experiences that drove them to drink just last week. Shoddy quality and workmanship, processes and “rules” that just don’t work, seemingly indifferent, incompetent or discourteous staff, products (as advertised) not being available, long delays and queues, websites or ATMs that just don’t work, and many, many more broken promises. And most of all, there is a lack of desire to fix what is broken.

Therefore, we think that by offering something unique to customers we attract and keep them loyal… but we couldn’t be further from the truth. Customers want something, and are prepared to pay for it, if it first and foremost meets their basic needs, and if you already do that better and more conveniently than your rivals, you are off to a good start. If you don’t get the basics incredibly right, no matter what else you do, it will fall flat. The foundation must be strong, or everything will crumble, and no amount of differentiation or innovation will fix this. Once the basics are in place, and you ensure that your business can reliably meet your customers’ reasonable expectations, only then should you start looking at branding and creating emotional, radical, distinctive and/or innovative experiences.

Why do we fail to do this in most organisations? First, top managers don’t spend enough time speaking directly with their customers, or experiencing what their customers are experiencing in their business like an “undercover boss.” Second, the people on the front line who do deal with customers don’t tell their bosses what it’s really like: “Never be the bearer of bad news,” seems to be the mantra, and they prefer to tell the boss what he or she wants to hear. Third, because of the repetitive and routine nature of most work in business, people get bored and want to try things out that are more exciting – without checking whether this is what customers actually want. We go for the latest management fads, pursue novelty and uniqueness, and what matters most to us, not to our customers.

Some of you may remember a chain of bakeries that opened in Johannesburg in the 1980s which, if I recall correctly, was called La Baguette. They focused mainly on bread and pastries, and the products were brilliant: crispy breads in a number of varieties, delicious croissants with chocolate and other fillings, and beautifully crafted little cheese and bacon tarts that caused customers to drool while they waited. They were so popular that occasionally the queues were outside the door. They had brought a little bit of Paris to Johannesburg’s customers.

And then suddenly they all closed down.

What happened? To put it bluntly, it was a hassle. Cars double- and triple-parked outside so their drivers wouldn’t have to walk from far away. As delicious as the products were, there was nothing else that one could buy. There was no convenience of picking up your milk and newspapers while you were there, or ordering your child’s birthday cake when you bought all the other stuff for the same party. (Contrast this with the amazing bakeries that we can now find, like independent chain Fournos, and in-store bakeries at SPAR and other retailers.)

So, if you are lucky, you may sell something completely unique and distinct – like diamonds – which customers will clamour to buy without question, (even though essentially it’s just a tiny shiny pebble.) But my main point in this article is that the primary way to gain customers and create loyalty is to differentiate your business from your competitors in ways that matter to customers. And for most of them it’s first about getting the boring basics right: quality products, decent treatment, fair prices, stock availability, short queues, nice environment, a focus on safety, hygiene and security, and so on. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that for most companies in any industry, the key differentiator is working relentlessly at doing the basic stuff right.

Alternatively, it may be a good idea for you to go and open up a jewellery store…

(First published in Supermarket and Retailer Magazine in 2014)

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