Image source: Will Porada via Unsplash
In 1985 Michael Porter published his book Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance and 35 years later, his premise still lies at the beating heart of many organisations. But the deluge of modern customer needs, wants, opinions and desires that is faced by organisations means that when a new and entirely unforeseen challenger sweeps in, what was your differentiating proposition i.e. your competitive advantage, could be dead in the water.
Is competitive advantage still a relevant model for today’s blurred-at-the-edges, fast-moving and fickle world? Is it the right vehicle for driving us into the future?
Yes, but only in part.
The problem with competitive advantage is that it draws our attention to the wrong thing – our competitor – when in fact the first place we need to focus is on our customer. Instead of thinking how do we do it better than our competitor, we should be asking ourselves a different question.
How can we do it better for our customer?
Here are 3 ways that thinking collaboratively can deliver value for your customers and unlock your organisation’s success.
Thinking from the outside in
Thinking about your business and your customers from the outside in is an essential part of joining the dots for your customers as they connect and move through your organisation. By stepping into a customer's shoes and understanding what the experience really is like for them means you are more likely to develop a process that supports the customer journey rather than simply slapping your business process on it.
A couple of years ago I heard Mark Evans, Managing Director, Marketing and Digital for DirectLine UK ask the question that if insurance is the least trusted sector in the world then what should insurance be for customers?
Stepping into the customer’s shoes uncovered insights that led to a shift in DirectLine’s brand promise to its market. What Mark discovered was that customers wanted insurance to ‘fix it’ when something went wrong...so he set about creating a culture of 'fixers' – where employees' first priority was to fix the customer’s problem. Systems and processes were an important factor in supporting the fixing but DirectLine’s customers ‘became’ people with problems – whose problems were solved by DirectLine’s people, from top to bottom.
DirectLine stands apart as an insurer that does not appear on any comparison websites. Yet the business continues to grow and their outside-in insight underpins their brand promise from the website to the opening pages of their 2018 Annual Report:
“We give people the protection they need to do the things they love in life.”
What you create for your customers in your brand promise should become the galvanizing force for collaboration across your organisation.
As a trustee for a secondary academy and sixth form college in North London, one of the challenges I've been working on is how to create better marketing for the school in the face of limited resources. My ‘customers’ and stakeholders are predominantly educators and have spent most of their adult life looking at the world through this lens. I have been looking too but from my marketer's perspective. So it was crucial to look at this problem from my customer's point of view and build a way for us to trust each other and communicate effectively.
To understand each other's view of the world, we started with our common purpose for the school’s ‘customers’ - Excellent Education for All. We then prioritised 4 key areas of work around this promise and worked on relevant, pragmatic and effective marketing approaches to both elevate and amplify all of the amazing things the school offers as well as reach our targets.
The results speak volumes: a 43% increase in our year 7 intake alongside academic results well above the national average and an expanded enrichment programme that connects with and fits the needs of our community with more than 100 people attending the school's inaugural International Evening at the end of January.
But all started with building trust.
Creating cross-functional followership
By definition, you don't become a leader without having followers. But leading has become much less about your actual ‘authority’ - your title, your budget or the number of people that work for you - and more about your perceived authority. People pay much more attention to how you work with others and whether you go beyond the things you have formal authority for. Are you someone who can influence and get things done outside your official remit?
The power of influence and collaboration is the bedrock of success. Having been a strategist and marketer for over 25 years, I’ve contributed to many successes, but I’ve needed to work with others for many things – two of the most critical of these have been getting products & services made and getting sales with customers.
If you don’t work across different parts of your business or with different stakeholders outside your business, it will be an uphill battle to move your products, get your services out, engage people in understanding your proposition and generate revenue and profit for your organisation.
Building followership cross-functionally is critical in putting your customer at the heart of your organisation (as opposed to the heart of your customer experience or marketing department).
Collaboration builds bridges
Opened in 2015, Luchtsingel (translation: "air canal") is an uninterrupted pedestrian pathway connecting Rotterdam Centraal station with the Laurenskwartier district. It was crowd-funded: More than 8,000 citizens made a financial contribution to connect their neighbourhoods and make use of existing spaces.
Image source: V&A Museum exhibit
To honour the collaborative and community spirit at the heart of the project, the 400m bridge was made up of timber panels inscribed with the name of each citizen-donor who helped fund the project. The bridge also links a series of individual public projects including a rooftop vegetable garden, an events space & a park.
It's an inspiring combination of collaboration & citizenry, of ‘customers’ i.e. residents, working together to not only find a solution to a problem but also to create greater value - connection and pride - for the community.
Building collaboration takes time. We ‘buy’ from people we know, like and trust, and building your trust account means consistently adding the value that is relevant for your customer.
An environment of trust provides the freedom to consider and compare rather than compete and offers opportunities to co-create with peers across your business, your supply chain and your industry as well as with your customers and maybe even your ‘competitors’.
Collaboration doesn’t happen overnight. But putting the right building blocks in place – outside-in thinking, trust and cross-functional followership – will build those all-important bridges and help to build a truly customer-centric organisation – one with a differentiated proposition and therefore, a competitive advantage.
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