Growth and Profitability from Outlier Customers

Red umbrella fly out from crowds of black umbrellas

When you deal with the same types of customers, buying the same products and using them the same way, every day, it’s easy to be lulled into a smug confidence that you know everything you need to know about how customer needs are evolving.

Market research and management reporting systems are notorious for “averaging” all customers together. This blends specific needs into a bland summary of general information. As a result, critical “outlier” information gets lost in the mix, and companies lose out on valuable insights about customer needs.

They focus product and service enhancements on the “average” customer, and as long as she’s pretty happy, they think they’re doing well.

This is dangerous.

When we ignore the unusual customers – the ones at the edges of the bell curve – we miss important market signals.

These “outlier” customers are those who do things a little differently.  They may use our product or service in an unusual way, perhaps even in a way that’s never occurred to us.

Why is this important? Continue Reading →

Be Prepared and Take Action Quickly!

Take action key on a computer keyboard, business concept

One Monday in 2013, my husband and I spent the night in our car. Shortly after midnight, on our way home from playing hockey (this is a new sport for us, and great fun), we were amazed to encounter a huge traffic jam on Atlanta’s I-285. As we slowed to a stop, we saw a plume of fire as big as a house rising from a burning tractor-trailer a third of a mile ahead. Scenes from disaster movies looped in my head, and we talked about what to do if things got worse.

We passed the first hour reading books on our iPhones, then slept intermittently while waiting for the emergency workers to put out the fire and clear the wreckage. Someone from a nearby car borrowed our jumper cables, and Rob got out from time to time to walk ahead to see how things were progressing. We started the car periodically to warm up.

This incident reminded me how important being prepared can be. I was thankful to have a warm coat and sensible shoes but thought about a few things that we should keep in the car in the future. Snacks, water, a first-aid kit, at least a third of a tank of gas.

I thought, too, about business preparedness. Business people tend to enjoy planning for good things, like new products, revenue growth and hiring. It’s worth taking the time to prepare for unpleasant surprises as well, since you can tremendously improve your outcomes with a little planning.

Here are a few examples: Continue Reading →

4 Questions Agile Companies Ask Themselves Every Day

Skier in mountains, prepared piste and sunny day

Do you wish your organization could move faster to take advantage of new opportunities in the market, or to avert emerging threats?

Do you feel that you are missing, or seeing but ignoring, important changes in your business environment?

Does it take longer than it should to make key strategic decisions, or to take action, once those decisions are made?

Today’s most agile organizations have learned how to respond more nimbly to changes in the marketplace. They ask themselves four key questions, every day: Continue Reading →

Six Obstacles That Stop Agility In Its Tracks

Professional sprinter jumping over a hurdle

Are you struggling to make your company more agile?

In my work with organizations in virtually every industry, I find that business agility – the ability to spot and capitalize on new business opportunities as they emerge – is a capability that many companies aspire to, but few achieve.

What makes agility so elusive?

I’ve observed six primary obstacles to achieving agility. Continue Reading →

Look Outside Your Industry for Breakthrough Ideas

Be Different

I recently met with the leaders of a highly successful company. Sales growth, which had been strong for years, was headed into negative territory. They were desperate to find the next “big idea” that would put their company on track for future growth.

As they discussed potential innovations, the same tired, incremental ideas that had been tossed around for years kept resurfacing.

What they needed was something to shake up their thinking.

Continue Reading →

3 Mistakes in Managing Risk and Uncertainty

фотосессия во Вьетнаме

Not long ago, I stood on a pier near Cape Canaveral, Florida and watched a SpaceX rocket launch.

People were wearing SpaceX t-shirts and talking excitedly. SpaceX has brought the thrill back into space exploration.

Founder Elon Musk figured that by developing a way to reuse rockets, just like airplanes, he could reduce the cost of travel to space by a factor of a hundred.

He’s well on his way to achieving that. The company created the first commercial spacecraft in history to shuttle cargo to and from the International Space Station, and has already cut the cost of launching into space to less than a tenth of its prior level.

His ultimate goal, however, is to colonize Mars, making human life inter-planetary.

How’s that for a bold vision statement?

Continue Reading →

Feel like your company is in slow motion? Five explosive steps to increase speed

In my work to help companies move faster on strategic opportunities, I hear stories like the following too often:

“My team is excited about growing our business, but it’s soooooo slow getting anything done around here.”

We sold a deal last week to a customer who was really—I mean REALLY—excited about the value we could create for him. But when we got back to the office, to put the pieces in place to deliver what we had AAEAAQAAAAAAAAlUAAAAJDU1NDhlOThhLWQ2OWEtNDY0Zi04ZDRjLWE0OWQ2ODZmMjFkMApromised, we ran into road block after road block. Approval processes, other priorities, and ‘business as usual’ slowed us down to the point that we eventually had to call the customer back and say we couldn’t meet her deadline.

“We had worked so hard to sell the customer on the idea, but because we couldn’t deliver fast enough, a competitor stepped in at the last minute and won the deal”

Do you sometimes feel like you are walking through Jello to get work done?  Like the rest of your organization just “doesn’t get it” when it comes to delivering value to customers?

No matter how bureaucratic, inept or slow the rest of your organization is, here are five things you can do to speed up your organization to get things done faster, win more business and make change happen:

1. Enlist believers:

Everyone wants to belong to something great, and people love creating new things.

Paint a picture of where you want to go—whether its starting up a new product or service line, entering a new market, or implementing a new operational procedure—and start talking it up with those in a position to help.

Notice who gets excited about your intent and immediately starts contributing ideas to make it successful. These are the enthusiastic, creative believers you want on your team. Enlist them.  Simply say “This is going to be hard, but worth it. Will you help me make it happen?”  You may be surprised at the avalanche of support you gain.

2. Build a virtual team, before you need one.

Once you’ve enlisted a few believers, you’ve got the beginnings of a virtual team. Now’s the time to build the comradery that will lead to commitment and speed.

Your virtual “team” may be spread across disparate time zones, divisions and functional areas. They may even speak different languages.  No matter how far-flung your believers are in the organization, you can instill a sense of community and belonging.

Provide a steady stream  of updates about your progress. Something as simple as “we talked to a customer in Chicago today, and they loved our concept!” can provide the juice to keep the conversation going (“What did they like most? When will they be willing to try it?”).

Find reasons to get believers talking to each other. Talk in vivid terms about what it will feel like when you achieve your goal. You’ll soon find that the “virtual team” takes on a life of its own, and that you have an army of believers throughout the organization to help you reach your goal.

3. Write different rules.

Corporate rules are written for typical, everyday scenarios. Approval levels, priorities, and policies designed for the average situation get in the way of accomplishing anything truly miraculous.  

You know that you’ll need different rules to accomplish your goals, so negotiate those rules before you need them.

Here’s how you might ask: “Mr./Ms. Decision Maker, we are setting out to penetrate a new market that could be a huge growth engine for our company, but to win the first few deals, we need to be lightning-fast delivering solutions to our customers. In the past, I’ve seen our approval process add weeks to delivery timelines, so I’m asking you now, before I close this deal, if we can agree on a 24-hour approval timeline. Would that be okay with you?”

4. Show results early. 

Nothing speaks like results.  Get a few closed-deals under your belt and internal resources—the ones who you need on your side—will suddenly start listening to you, or even lining up to help you.  Communicate every positive step on your journey loudly and often.  A positive customer comment; the initiation of a proof of concept trial; the first dollar of revenue—all these are hard evidence that your cause is worth investing in.

5. Give everyone credit.

Most important, when you start making progress, spread credit for your accomplishments far and wide.   Let the road blockers, naysayers and slow pokes have a share of the credit, and you may just find that they are moving faster next time around.

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What To Do When Your Customers Are Changing Faster Than You Are

Are Your Customers Changing Faster Than You Are? 


If you are like most businesses these days, your customer’s behaviors and needs are evolving almost constantly. Sometimes the change is so subtle we barely perceive it, until suddenly we notice customers are defecting.

On the other hand, when we notice these changes, and capitalize on them, we can create exciting new sources of growth for our businesses.

During my consulting work, and in conducting research for my book, The Agility AdvantageHow to Identify and Act on Opportunities in a Fast-Changing World, I’ve observed five things that successful entrepreneurs, businesses and non-profits do to stay ahead of changes in their marketplaces.

  1. Spend time observing and interacting with customers.

Shop any Thursday at Home Depot, and the employee who helps you find the tool, part or garden supply you need might just be an executive from corporate headquarters. By directly interacting with customers and experiencing firsthand the problems that store associates do, these decision makers tune into emerging market changes, and can develop practical solutions and improvements.

Similarly, Nissan responds continuously to comments customers make on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, and gets these comments quickly into the hands of the relevant employees in customer service, manufacturing, and at the dealers. As a result, quality problems get fixed fast, and service is continuously improving.

Make it easy for customers to give you feedback. Talk to and observe customers daily and you’ll be the first to see and respond to changes in their needs.

2. Anticipate and prepare for what might happen next.

Ever noticed how some business people seem to be able to spot trends coming, and position themselves perfectly to catch the wave?

 While no one can foretell the future, some people have a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Their secret is simple – they take the time to ask themselves: “What changes have I observed in customer’s needs, in technologies, in regulations, or in competitor offerings?   What might happen next? What can I do to take advantage of these potential events?

For example, one business person I know noticed a line outside her competitor’s door on certain days of the month, and discovered those were the days Groupon offers came out. Anticipating that this trend might accelerate as other new promotions technologies became available, and wanting to avoid the deep-discounting inherent to couponing, she developed a loyalty program that built a strong bond with her best customers and ensured their repeat business.

 3. Differentiate by developing new offerings and new ways of doing business

When you see changes in your industry, you can rest assured that your competitors have probably noticed the some of same market trends that you’ve observed. If you respond in the same way as your competitor, you run the risk of becoming—or continuing to be—undifferentiated and commoditized. (For more details I wrote a short piece on the topic here)

Therefore, don’t follow the competitive pack—devise a different and better way of capitalizing on the changes you see.

For example, Airbnb was founded during a difficult economic time when many homeowners were having trouble paying the bills. Company founders observed this, and came up with the idea of helping people to generate income by sharing extra “capacity” in their homes. They matched these homeowners with trustworthy guests who were looking for a travel adventure, and created a whole new industry in the process.

Test new offerings and ways of doing business often. By placing small bets that you can learn from, you’ll minimize risk while maximizing the speed with which you adapt to market change.

Facebook runs hundreds of different versions of its site at any given time. You may see a version of an ad with one set of colors and features, and I see another—simultaneously. Facebook measures customer response, then retains the versions that perform the best, while eliminating the others. Each incremental alteration to the user experience is minor, so users can adapt gradually to change. This rapid innovation and learning cycle has been essential to the company’s success.

  1. Allow employees the flexibility to pursue your company’s purpose. 

The most important thing a leader can do is to enlist and inspire their employees around a clear and compelling vision and purpose. With this established, you can give employees the autonomy to adjust course as they see changes occurring in the market. When employees have a bit of free rein, they will not only be more energized, happy and loyal, they’ll be better able to spot and jump on emerging opportunities, to ensure your company’s continued success.

This post originally appeared in The Atlanta Business Chronicle

Amanda Setili is founder and managing partner of Atlanta-based business consulting firm Setili & Associates and author of The Agility Advantage, How to Identify and Act on Opportunities in a Fast-Changing World (Jossey-Bass, 2014).

When Commoditization Is On The Horizon: Don’t Become ”Just Another Product”

Commoditization seems to be constantly nipping at our heels. Like gravity pulling us back to earth, natural forces tend to drive our products toward sameness with competitors over time. We’ve all seen what happens when this occurs: growth stalls and profit margins erode.

Business, technical and societal changes are making it harder, in some ways, to differentiate now than in the past. These changes include: the rise of powerful procurement groups, who force suppliers to deliver to standardized specifications; the improved visibility, via the web, into competitor offerings; the ready availability of non-proprietary technology; outsourcing of functions such as manufacturing, customer service and technology development; and just plain “me-tooism.”

Here are three things we can do to resist these forces and to differentiate from competition:

  1. Stop doing what customers suggest. Listening to customers has always been important, and new technologies have made it more efficient to do so now than before. Collecting information from online reviews, holding customer advisory boards, working on the front line, visiting customers (and talking to all the functions, not just the “decision makers,”) and getting to know your “customer’s customers” are a few of the ways strong companies stay in touch with changing customer needs. Many of these efforts, however, tend to accelerate commoditization. Customers to ask you to provide everything your competitors are providing, and you, eager to please, say “yes.” Listen hard to what customer’s say, but more importantly, watch what they do. If your products are online, observe which of your products are getting pinned on Pinterest, and by whom. Watch how your most demanding and forward thinking customers are using your products, and your competitors’ products. Observing how these “micro-niche” customers behave can provide valuable ideas for breaking out of the pack.
  2. Anticipate competitor moves, and then do the opposite. If you want to differentiate effectively, look not just what competitors are offering, but how they think. Look at who their top officers are, where they came from, and what their M.O., or modus operandi, Even thirty minutes spent looking at management bios, listening to investor calls and perusing LinkedIn can yield great insight into the minds of your competition. Resist the urge to copy features and services offered by the competition. Instead, anticipate what they might do next, and consider doing the opposite.
  3. Take away, don’t just add. Don’t fall victim to the temptation to add features, services, products, and markets every year. Consider how you can differentiate by taking away features, by doing less. Ikea is a good example. They eliminated features that were standard fare in other furniture stores. They took away in-store service, delivery and assembly. The stores are almost entirely self-service, but Ikea makes shopping fun through inspiring displays and ready availability of tape measures and note pads. Customers have to carry the products home themselves, but Ikea packages them cleverly into small boxes that fit easily into a vehicle. Customers have to assemble the products themselves, but Ikea’s simple, stick figure instructions make it fun, like assembling a Lego toy (the Journal of Psychology reports that customers like their product more, and are even willing to pay more if they assemble their Ikea product themselves – amazing!). While other furniture stores emphasize the durability and timelessness of their products, Ikea makes us think of furniture as a fashion accessory, something we can use for a while, and then replace. By taking away features, Ikea creates a compelling customer experience, and keeps prices amazingly low.

By watching what customers do (not what they say), by anticipating competitor moves (and doing the opposite) and by considering what to remove from our product offerings (rather than adding features), we can avoid getting sucked into the torrent of the mainstream. We can distinguish our products and services from those of competitors and enjoy healthy margins and growth.