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customer-centric sales

Customer-centric Sales is the New Competitive Advantage

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This Veracle explains why customer-centric sales is the new competitive advantage.

Earlier, we recognised the need for a new frontier for sustainable competitive advantage.

We explored if product differentiation can be that frontier.

The car, coffee, and cosmetic examples illustrate that product differentiation is ephemeral. It has become transient. It is now more a hygiene factor than a source of sustainable competitive advantage.

So, if product differentiation is merely a hygiene factor, how to compete in the cut-throat marketplace?

To answer this question, let us go back to basics.

Consider our typical sales situation. Three entities are present here: the seller, the product (or service), and the buyer (or customer).

Here, many salespeople focus on the first two:

  • How they as seller are different
  • How their product is different

This is the seller-centric approach.

It focuses on sellers and their products.

It reminds me of a captivating scene in the movie The Wolf of Wall Street. When Jordan Belfort (Leo DiCaprio) asks some conference attendees to “sell me this pen”, they take this same approach.

Sell me this pen” from the movie The Wolf of Wall Street

However, this seller-centric approach is suboptimal.

It may work in certain situations. But it isn’t ideal for building long-term customer relationships. Hence, it is not sustainable.

That brings us to the third entity present in the sales process – the customer.

Today, the customer has access to a lot more information at the touch of a screen. They can easily compare products and prices. If they don’t like something in a product, they switch just as easily. They know what is best for them.

In short, customers want to be in control of their buying process.

The problem is, the seller-centric sales does not do that.

A working strategy is ‘CUSTOMER-CENTRIC SALES.’

What is customer-centric sales?

In customer-centric sales, you don’t try to get people to buy your stuff they don’t need, by dwelling on seller or product differentiation.

Instead, you focus on knowing customers better. Make it data-driven. We call it developing customer intelligence. You strive to understand customers at a much deeper level.

Generally, salespeople know which customers buy their products?

But many times, they do not know ‘WHY do those customers buy their products.’ Unfortunately, this is more common than we think.

The key is to know the real reason and motive behind the purchase.

But, why is THE WHY important?

Because, customer’s reason to buy your product is likely to be different from your reason to sell it.

And guess what?

Your reasons to sell do not matter; while customers’ reasons to buy do.

This may sound harsh. But it is true.

You may be selling dog food because it is so good in quality that you can also eat. Whereas, the customer may be buying it because it is cheap and convenient.

You may be selling expensive maple wood furniture because the wood is durable and sourced from hardwood forests of North America. The customer may be buying it simply because it is lighter.

You may be selling homemade food as you have fresh organic homegrown ingredients. But the customer may be buying your homemade food because they can get it customised.

The point is this.

Customers buy anything for THEIR own reasons, not yours.

Businesses that get this insight embrace customer-centric sales approach and thrive.

Others that fixate on their own seller-centric differentiation without concern to customers’ reasons struggle.

Consider examples of a few companies where a seller-centric sales approach failed them.

Example 1: A video rental company closed because of not knowing their customer’s why.

You guessed it right.

Blockbuster was in the business of ‘renting out DVDs’. Their competitor Netflix also started ‘renting out DVDs’ in 1997.

Blockbuster’s model was seller-centric. It focused heavily on high street retail sales. Apart from other things, they maximised revenues by charging late returns (of DVDs). Blockbuster made 16% of their revenues in late fees.

On the contrary, Netflix pursued customer-centric sales strategy and studied customers. They enabled consumers to watch videos for a flat monthly fee without worrying about returns.

Blockbuster’s seller-centric model frustrated customers. Netflix’s customer-centric approach eased customers about returns.

Blockbuster vs Netflix

Meanwhile, faster internet allowed online streaming. It enabled customers to watch videos online. Ergo, customer buying preferences changed. They stopped going to stores altogether.

As a result, blockbusters seller-centric model collapsed. Whereas, Netflix re-aligned with customer’s watching preferences by offering videos online on-demand.

Eventually, Blockbuster ended up bankrupt. And Netflix emerged as one of the top ‘over-the-top content platforms.’

customer-centric sales
Source credit: Strategyjourney.com

According to the UK CMO of blockbuster Bryn Owen, Blockbuster’s sales-driven model did them in.

Example 2: “Share memories, Share life.” A Kodak moment (in 2012) that saddened everyone.

George Eastman, Kodak’s founder, invented roll film in 1888.

Kodak was primarily in the photographic film business. They prided on their silver-halide film technology.

Listening to customer demand, Fujifilm started selling film in 1934.

Meanwhile, the digital revolution started in the 1960s.

Steve Sasson, the Kodak engineer, developed the first digital camera in 1975.
Source credit: James Rajotte for The New York Times

By the late 1990s, the demand for photographic films dropped in line with the growing popularity of digital cameras.

Source: PMA, Business 2 community

The rapid spread of digital technology disrupted the photographic equipment industry.

Fujifilm invested in knowing customer’s changing preferences. They adapted to this shift by switching to digital lines of business.

Despite that, Kodak focused on film.

Not just that.

Kodak had acquired a photo-sharing site called Ofoto in 2001. If they were customer-centric, they would have been the pioneer of something like present-day Instagram.

Instead, Kodak used Ofoto to try to get more people to print digital images.

In the end, Kodak filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in January-2012.

customer-centric sales
Kodak and Fujifilm stock performance comparison with key events.

Don Strickland, a former vice-president of Kodak, said: “We developed the world’s first consumer digital camera but we could not get approval to launch or sell it because of fear of the effects on the film market.”

Once the world’s biggest film company, Kodak became a posterchild for failure due to not being customer-centric.

Unfortunately, these aren’t isolated examples of companies stuck with seller-centric sales approach. GM, Nokia, Xerox, JCPenney, Palm, Sony are but to name a few.

Building a new competitive advantage with customer centric-sales

Building a true competitive advantage requires implementing customer-centric sales strategy. This strategy has these three benefits:

  1. You give customers, control in their buying process
  2. Customers get what they want
  3. It is sustainable

Most internet-age companies that are growing rapidly are customer-centric.

Amazon obsesses over customers as they want to be known as Earth’s most customer-centric company. Everyone knows about customer-centricity of Google, Nordstrom, and Southwest.

Companies like Lululemon, John Lewis, and Target have invested in developing customer intelligence to be customer-centric.

So, how are these successful businesses pursuing this deliberate strategy of customer-centric sales?

We will discuss in the next Veracle.

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Product Differentiation

Product Differentiation: Why it isn’t enough anymore

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Product Differentiation – why?

Generally, salespeople highlight their differentiation advantage to customers in two ways:

  • Our company is unique and special. Buy from our company.
    • This is seller differentiation.
  • Our product is unique and special. Buy our product.
    • This is product differentiation.

We will analyse seller differentiation later.

In product differentiation, special typically means high quality. The source of uniqueness and high quality in a product could be varied. Some of them are rare raw materials, advanced technology, distinctive design, superior personnel, or unusual methods. These become the sources of product differentiation. Customers perceive such products as high performance or exclusive. So, they are willing to pay a higher price for them.

Up until now, product differentiation helped businesses sell, and charge premium to their customers.

However, this is changing.

In a recent conversation with the CEO of a cosmetics company in Europe, he gave a thought-provoking perspective in the context of their product differentiation.

The CEO: “[First] it was ‘natural’. Then we introduced ‘natural fruit-based’. Then it became ‘natural fruit-based paraben-free allergen-free’. And it went on like that… Whenever I try to differentiate my product further, I feel I am narrowing my customer base. It is a big problem because my loyal customer base keeps shifting…

Evidently, his concern is not misplaced.

In an online survey in Europe, 900 women aged 25-65 years buying cosmetics and being interested in organic and natural cosmetics associated different characteristics and qualities with organic and natural cosmetics (see EXHIBIT 1).

Source: Statista 2021, Veravizion analysis

To be honest, this finding isn’t surprising.

There are so many ways to differentiate a product within a category. They may not appear truly differentiated at all.

It appears, product differentiation as a source of competitive advantage is losing its sheen. It may not be enough going forward to compete.

Wonder why it is so?

To find out, we analysed the sources of product differentiation. Our analysis yielded these insights.

In our increasingly global and digital world, the sources of product differentiation have become pervasive.

  • Global supply chains make it easy to procure raw materials from any place on the Earth. That too fairly quickly.
  • A free market economy facilitates the effortless movement of goods and expert personnel.
  • The Internet makes it simple to share information and technology.

Basically, it has become easy to procure stuff and change. This helps your rivals achieve parity with your products in no time.

Let’s see how.

Consider examples from three diverse product categories: cosmetics, coffee, and car. Notice how a product that once appeared differentiated from their competitors’ doesn’t seem so anymore.

Example 1: The Body Shop – the first natural and organic cosmetic brand?

The Body Shop is perhaps the first global company to popularise the use of ‘natural ingredients’ in cosmetics. Anita Roddick, an activist, founded it to also promote ethical consumerism. The business’s original vision was to sell products with ethically-sourced, cruelty-free, and natural ingredients. The company was one of the first to prohibit the use of ingredients tested on animals. The Body Shop truly differentiated itself at the time. And it thrived. This was in the eighties and early nineties.

Product Differentiation
Source: The Body Shop

However, competitors followed suit soon after. Every cosmetic company wanted to show natural ingredients in their product. So much so that, it might be difficult to find a cosmetic company that does not seek to differentiate itself as natural or organic. Looks like, Natural is a hygiene factor in cosmetics now.

Example 2: Kopi Luwak – world’s most expensive coffee

Product Differentiation
Source: Pinterest

Civet coffee, also called Luwark coffee (or Kopi Luwak), is advertised as the world’s most expensive coffee. It is expensive because of an uncommon method of producing it. Civet coffee is produced from the coffee beans digested by civet cat. The faeces of this cat are collected, processed, and sold. A unique process indeed!

Civet coffee is originally from Indonesia. But, it is now produced across many countries in South East Asia, and even in India. It may only be a matter of time before we see this coffee in our favourite coffee shops. Moreover, there are other coffee brands such as Black Ivory, Finca El Injerto, Hacienda La Esmeralda, Saint Helena, and Jamaican Blue Mountain that are touted as the world’s most expensive coffee. Apparently, Kopi Luwak seems to have lost its flavour as world’s most expensive coffee.

Example 3: Exotic and handmade Phantom – an epitome of luxury

Product Differentiation
Source: Caranddriver.com

Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupé gained fame as your own bespoke exotic car handmade by expert craftsmen. Rolls-Royce claims that no two Phantoms in the world are exactly the same.

Finally, a true differentiator? We thought so too.

Only, there are at least ten other cars which take pride in calling themselves most exotic and handmade. Lamborghini, Bugatti, Pagani trump the track where Aston Martin is not even in the top-3.

Therefore, that forces us to ask.

Product Differentiation: is it a competitive advantage or a hygiene factor?

The point from the above examples is this.

The Body Shop might be natural and organic; Kopi Luwak might be a billionaire’s brew; Rolls-Royce Phantom might be exotic and handmade.

But they are not the only ones doing it in their industry. Rather, they join the crowd by competing on product differentiation.

Ironic, isn’t it!

The truth is this. The more you pursue product differentiation, the more you risk looking like the scores of your competitors doing the same.

It makes one wonder whether ‘our product is high quality’ has become a hygiene factor. It will not guarantee you sales, let alone premium prices. But not having it will definitely hurt sales.

But wait!

Apple pursues a product differentiation strategy. And Apple continues selling humongous numbers of iPhones and iOS devices. In fact, iOS had more than 50% of the market share in the US as of May-2020 (see EXHIBIT 2).

Source: Statista

How do we explain this?

Clearly, something is at play here.

Is product differentiation a source of competitive advantage? Or has it merely become a hygiene factor?

If the latter, then how can you compete in the fiercely competitive marketplace?

What are your thoughts on this?

Let us analyse this aspect in the next Veracle.

Cover Photo courtesy: Vix.com

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Competitive Advantage

Competitive Advantage: you have one? Is it sustainable?

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In a sales situation, a salesperson looks to convince a customer to buy their (product or service) offering. To do that, they must showcase how their offering creates value for the customer. They are aware that the customer would be comparing their offering with those of their competitors. This is where the competitive advantage comes into the picture.

Competitive advantage renders you an edge over your rivals. A company’s competitive advantage makes their (product or service) offering more desirable to customers than those of their competitors.

According to Investopedia, competitive advantage refers to factors that allow a company to produce goods or services better or more cheaply than its rivals.

The factors could be price, product quality, delivery speed, customer service, location, and so on.

Among these, the price factor is different from the other factors.

Let’s see how.

Competitive Advantage: the ‘Price factor’

When a business competes on price, they price their products lower than their competitors’ prices. Therefore, they must produce the product at a low cost to sell it at a profit.

Source: Walmart.com

For example, Walmart competes on price. Their slogan is “everyday low prices”. They must produce or procure products at a very low cost to sell at a profit.

Competitive Advantage: the ‘Other factors’

When a business competes on factors other than price, they must ensure high differentiation from the competitors on that factor. Their slogan would be the best quality, higher speed, better customer service, and so on. However, it takes additional resources, and thus higher costs, to create differentiation. Hence, they must price the product at a premium to sell it at a profit.

Competitive Advantage
Source: Christies.com

For example, dubbed as the world’s most coveted handbags, Hermès Birkin bags are super-expensive. Each bag is handmade by a single artisan craftsman using premium materials like calf skin, alligator skin, and even ostrich skin. And there is a waiting list for the top ones like the one shown here.

This low cost and high differentiation form the basis of business strategy for firms.

Porter defined these two ways in which an organization can achieve a competitive advantage over its rivals as cost advantage and differentiation advantage.

Cost advantage & differentiation advantage served us well.

Thus far.

However, competitive advantage must be sustainable. It should help us sell in today’s fiercely competitive markets and tomorrows. In the absence of sustainable competitive advantage, your product may not continue to sell for long.

This is where the challenge is.

Both these sources of competitive advantage are seller-centric. They talk about seller’s cost advantage and seller’s differentiation advantage.

The thing is, competitive advantage for a business is the factor (or reason) for which the business wants customers to buy their products.

And the truth is, customers buy anything for THEIR own reasons, not yours.

Please do let the above two insights sink-in before you read ahead.

Therefore, it follows that, the factor for which a business wants customers to buy their products should be customer-centric.

That is, the source of competitive advantage for a business should be customer-centric (and not seller-centric).

This is like the movement of scientific theory from the Ptolemaic system (the earth at the centre of the universe) to the Copernican system (the sun at the centre of the universe).

It is a paradigm shift.

When that happens, a business will always be aligned with customer-needs. As and when the customer buying preference changes, a business will be able to respond to the change by correspondingly aligning their source of competitive advantage.

Savvy?! But wait.

What is the significance of this finding?

This signifies that the existing ways of building competitive advantage – cost and differentiation advantage – alone may not suffice.

The evidence is in the huge number of businesses shutting down, like Arcadia group, Chuck E. Cheese, Debenhams, J. Crew, JC Penny, Mamas & Papas, Mothercare, Neiman Marcus, and Wallis to name a few. Some of them are (sorry, were) iconic retailers. The list is long. Many of them are permanently closing most of their stores. Don’t we know that all of them had built competitive advantage the traditional way?

In short, we need to build the next frontier for developing sustainable competitive advantage.

And how do we do that?

Can we do it through product differentiation?

We do it by putting in place a mechanism to understand your customers like never before.

This doesn’t sound anything new, right?

Except, the ways of understanding a customer have undergone a sea-change. There is a lot more we can learn about a customer to help them.

Let us summarise the whole thing.

In the internet age, when brick-and-mortar businesses are finding it difficult to compete and are closing down, companies cannot rely only on the traditional meaning and sources of competitive advantage.

There is a need to build new frontier.

Developing your customer intelligence is the first step in that direction. That entails understanding many more things than we have ever known until now. This new frontier of competitive advantage helps you build a solid platform to grow further and beyond.

Besides, who has ever gone wrong knowing more about their customers?

Cover Photo courtesy: Rob Wingate on Unsplash

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e-Retail Innovations

e-Retail Innovations – How e-Retail is Changing?

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e-Retail Innovations and Growth

Over the last 15 years, the share of online retail (or e-retail) has increased steadily all over the world. The graph below shows the percentage of e-retail sales out of total sales for the US.

*Note: Data of first 2 quarters of 2020 is taken
Source: United States Census Bureau

In 2019, e-retail sales accounted for only 10.9% of total retail sales. This shows that e-retail has good potential to grow in the coming years.

A major reason for low e-retail sales is customer shopping behaviour. In fact, physical retail and e-retail KPIs are also different.

Notably, there is a basic difference between how customers shop offline and online. It is down to how customers interact with products while purchasing.

Why e-Retail is less than traditional retail?

According to KPMG, the top-three reasons people go to physical shops are to do with touching or trying the product. 56% of customers prefer shopping offline for the ability to see and touch the product. These are limitations of e-Retail.

Now, e-retail businesses like Amazon have grown with continuous innovations. In 2018 alone, Amazon spent 12.7% of their revenue on R&D. Over the years, many e-retail businesses have disrupted the retail industry with innovations like chatbot, voice search, and drone delivery, to name a few.

The e-retail innovations we discuss here expect to overcome the top-three limitations of e-retail. The aim is to improve the engagement of customers with the products they intend to purchase.

So, what are the most recent e-retail innovations?

Here are three of them:

  1. 3D Models (and videos of product)
  2. Livestreaming
  3. Augmented-reality (AR)

3D Models (and videos of product)

On 14th March 2020, Shopify announced that merchants could upload 3D models or videos directly to their product pages. Fashion merchants selling on Shopify were happy with this new technology. Results showed that the visitors who interacted with a 3D model were 44% more likely to add a product to their shopping cart and 27% more likely to place an order than visitors that did not. 

After implementing 3D models in their store, Bumbleride saw a conversion rate increase of 33% for strollers and increased time on page by up to 21%.

Advantage:

In traditional retail, customers can ‘see’ and ‘feel’ a product before buying. By using a 3D model of products in e-retail, customers can virtually ‘see’ a product interacting with their home or office environment. This feature increases the engagement rate and ultimately leads to more sales.

Livestreaming

Taobao Live is a live streaming service integrated into the Taobao App of Alibaba Group. On 1st June 2020, Taobao Live sold goods worth $280 million in the initial 90 minutes. Merchants can apply on Taobao app for free and start live streaming of their products. Customers can ask queries, buy, and pay on the same app.

Advantages:

  • It is similar to a traditional store being open for customers. But in this case, customers who are interested in the category will join the Livestream. This is a significant advantage as users are already lower down the sales funnel.

  • In digital media, brands have to hire celebrities and tap their brand equity to sell their products. However, in Livestream, anyone can display the products.

  • Users watching Livestream can ask queries related to product and host can answer them or display in real-time. For example, a user might ask ‘can you show how size 7 will fit me?’ The host can then try on size 7 shoe in real-time during Livestream. Subsequently, this increases the engagement of products with potential customers.

Augmented Reality (AR)

In May 2020, Kendra Scott, a jewelry brand, introduced virtual try-on. This feature implements augmented reality and allows users to preview products.

AR is also being used by furniture retailers like Wayfair and Ikea for displaying how furniture will look in their homes after purchase.

In December 2019, L’Oreal announced a virtual try-on that lets shoppers try on makeup virtually using their phone. Garnier (owned by L’Oreal) also launched a virtual try-on named “Garnier hair colour”. Using the Google Lens image-recognition mobile app made by Google Inc., shoppers can point their phone cameras at the hair-colour boxes to activate the virtual try-on service.

Advantage:

  • In e-retail, users can only visually see 2D product images. But with AR, users can virtually try-on products. They can also get some idea of how the products will look in their surroundings.

As e-commerce and e-retail industry matures, innovations are likely to continue in this space.

Author: Sumit Patil

Cover Photo courtesy: Vectary

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