As a startup advisor, I see too many entrepreneurs get distracted by technology or their favorite cause, and then wonder why they can’t find an investor, attract customers, or build a long-term business. Every startup needs to start with an honest assessment of how they provide customer value, and how that translates into a sustainable business return for stakeholders and growth.
Customer value used to be a simple concept of how much they pay for a solution, compared to their incremental cost reduction driven by your business. Now, these principles are complicated by the worldwide instant access to many competitive alternatives, indirect social and environmental impacts, and the velocity of change enabled by the pervasive market move to digital.
The market is now a chaotic swirling storm of change, which is characterized in the classic book, “Digital Vortex,” by Jeff Loucks et al, as causing digital disruption on a massive scale. In this new world, finding customer value is elusive, where out of nowhere startups and other tech-savvy disruptors attack, and your most loyal customers bolt for the door at the slightest opportunity.
The authors focus on the many new principles of customer value in the digital disruptor age, which I believe every business executive and entrepreneur needs to understand, in order to make their business more competitive and investable. These principles include the following:
- Free and ultra-low-cost may no longer be competitive. The old saying that it’s pretty hard to compete with free no longer holds when cost is not the primary customer value element and free is the norm. Customers now put big value on experience, social impact, empowerment, and feedback. Value to second-order customer advertisers is key.
- Internet disruptors make prices and margins transparent. A wide range of digital comparison-shopping tools enable customers to see differences and instantly source at the lowest cost worldwide. Competitive customer value that can be monetized for stakeholders has to go beyond the short-term value of special deals and coupons.
- Customer empowerment and digital tools remove middlemen. Circumventing middlemen (going direct) do-it-yourself (DIY) and placing the customer “in charge” are core elements of digital disruption to traditional customer value levers. For example, Netflix uses a digital model to unbundle television programming, creating new customer value.
- Digital customization creates unique experiences for each customer. Value is now derived by tailoring the product per customer or interpreting a user’s location and specific needs to create an experience that maximizes value. Even advertising and search results are personalized per user for maximum impact and improved business return.
- Instant gratification requires automated digital fulfillment processes. This business model gives customers the value they want without having to wait, either by delivering physical products quickly or by providing digital versions instantaneously. In today’s world, time is often more valuable then margin to the business as well as the customer.
- Digitizing processes reduces friction and increases convenience. Automation provides customer value by using technology to complete tasks and arrange for the completion of tasks by others. Customers and businesses alike benefit from not having to enter the same data multiple times, and making better decisions from accumulated data.
- Digital platforms create network effects that multiply customer value. Network effects are huge value generators. They span the gamut from peer-to-peer interactions to crowdsourcing, gamification, and communities. They are a powerful competitive force, once successfully established, that is difficult to dislodge with winner-take-all potential.
Digital disruptors have also introduced the concept of value vampires, who shrink the overall revenue and profit pool in a market to gain competitive advantage. On the other side of the equation, every business needs to find value vacancies, which are market opportunities that can be profitably exploited via digital disruption.
Thus customers and investors still need to see customer value at the key deliverable from your business, rather than technology or a “save the world” mission. But in this Digital Age, customer value has many new dimensions. Make sure you are focusing on the right ones for your customer segment, and the return for your business will let you live long and prosper.