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Are we solving customer problems?

Customers only care about their needs, not your business problems

This article contains my personal views, not those of my employer Lonely Planet.

The challenge the publishing industry faces today is complex. Against centuries of industry inertia and decades of business momentum, the job of transforming publishing is demanding to say the least. The healthy and long-lasting business model we once had is still funding emerging digital models but simultaneously holding them back.

What makes it worse is that we tend to look at the puzzles thrown at us through the narrowly-focused lens of the business rather than the lens of the customer. We put a disproportionate amount of effort in trying to solve business problems and not enough effort in solving customer problems.

In Jani Patokallio’s post later referenced by Bill McCoy I made an observation:

If I can use a great website (read: UX, content, functionality) online and offline…on any of my devices…I don’t see a reason why we wouldn’t migrate to all our requirements being fulfilled by pointing our browser to a specific address…

All I was trying to do is see the world from a customer’s perspective.

Did we forget we exist because we solve customer problems? Are we trying to make everything look and feel like a book to hold onto the once successful business model? Adjusting Upton Sinclair’s quote:

It is difficult to get an industry to understand something when its income depends upon it not understanding it

So, allow me to speak as a customer and share my experience. It took me a few years to naturally wean myself off the addiction of printed photos and albums when digital cameras first came out. Now I cannot even imagine printing a picture unless I wanted to frame it and hang it on the wall. My flickr library of images has suddenly become the first and one of the most important pieces of digital inheritance I am creating for my kids.

I’ve experienced the same phenomenon of losing my desire to own physical objects for movies and music. Managing a physical library of DVDs or CDs when you move houses is painful, so is managing a digital library of songs when you move computers. Services that let me find and pay (either as a subscription or on the spot) for these are going to solve my needs. How much do I have access to, how easy it is to use, etc., are, of course, a measure of how well this concept is executed…and it’s only a matter of time before someone nails it.

In 1999, when I felt like listening to a song, I knew I had to go to a music shop and buy the CD. I didn’t want to buy a CD. I wanted to listen to a song, but the method to do so was limited to buying the CD. The direct correlation was so powerful that when I finally could get just the song I wanted from Napster I still went to get the CD; I did this first because it felt weird not to have the CD and secondly since it was easier to just put the CD in my player and listen to it through my surround sound system.

Fast-forward to today. When I feel like listening to a song, I open Spotify, search for it and press play; I can hear it in my iPhone, my laptop at work, or my surround sound system at home. I have lost all desire to own a CD or even the digital song file, because I know it’s there, in Spotify’s servers somewhere, ready for me to listen to it whenever I want. I am not going back to CDs or even iTunes. And as a customer I don’t care about  Spotify’s finances, if they go, someone else will fill the void.

The same phenomenon occurs to me with books. The reasons for owning a physical or digital book are quickly diminishing: novels, business books, encyclopedias, travel guidebooks, etc., have now moved into my digital world where my demand is fulfilled either by an ebook or the web at large. And because I am already trained with music and movies, the ebook is already a pain to me, because once I read it, I actually don’t need the digital copy anymore. It would be perfect if I could just go to the “Spotify of books” and read the few pages in the Game of Thrones story that related to the scene I just watched on my Apple TV for example.

I am a convert…I don’t want to “own” any more printed pictures, DVDs, physical books, CDs or songs. I just want to watch it, listen to it, read it, enjoy it, when I want, where I want, however I want – and I will pay for that. So, if this trend that I and a lot of my friends, customers and colleagues are experiencing is real, it is only a matter of time before the customer beats the business model.

As mentioned above, I don’t underestimate the challenge and complexity of undoing 500 years of inertia. My aim is simply to ensure we, the publishing industry, don’t forget that our goal should not be to replicate the past with new technologies but to invent the future. To help people realize what they really want is to listen to a song, not buy a CD. DRM is probably one of the most talked- and written-about examples. Is DRM solving a business problem or a customer problem? I have no doubt that the customer will win and their demand will eventually fuel the supply. If we continue to focus on business problems, someone else will solve the customer problem.

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  • Harvk5

    I think the problem you are addressing is addressed by cloud computing. Am I wrong?

    • Gus Balbontin

      Cloud computing is an enabler, new capability that should help the publishing industry solve customers problems in ways we have never been able to….but it is not the solution on its own.

    • flo

      kind of. but cloud computing is not mature enough at the moment (security issues, …) to sustain that.

  • Steve Sammartino

    It’s never the ‘thing’ that brings value… it’s the utility it provides….

    I don’t even want to ride my surfboard…. I really just want to ride the wave and be inside it’s tube! – Waiting for the technology to chat up here!!!!

    steve. 

    • Gus Balbontin

      Agree Steve, and if focus only on selling surfboards, we will miss the opportunities.

  • Dennis Kilian

    Gus, as you mention, there are books, and then there are books. Some books such as novels are used as entertainment, reading a story from start to finish. Others, such as text books, are used for lessons, perhaps by chapter, a few pages, exercises, etc. Still others, such as travel guides are used to access information on a specific topic, perhaps just a paragragh or photo.

    The point I am trying to make is that one size does not fit all – not everyone just wants to listen to a song. In my opinion, there isn’t an either or. Some customer prefer the convenience of downloading their story to an eReader, avoiding the bookstore, taking multiple books on trips, keeping a digital library. Others still like look, feel and reading experience that comes from a printed book (does it make sense to digitize a coffee table book?). Some prefer to just pop that CD in to listen to their book (or song). Still others just want access to information that happens to come in book form, either via a web browser user interface, app, etc. Each and every one of them have different preferences on if and how they may want to save and store their content (the cloud isn’t the answer for everyone), vis-a-vis their preferences on how they use the content.

    I believe that the successful publisher recognizes and takes advantage of the myriad of customer needs and preferences, understanding that their authored content has the potential to be used and reused in a myriad of forms – book, article, paragraph, lesson, excerpt, database, tweet, quote, edited and reformed in all types of media – print, digital, audio, visual, feel, smell, stored in a variety of ways – on a bookshelf, on a personal device, on a server, in the cloud. 

    Of course, a publisher could specialize and be very successful. But there is also an enormous opportunity for those that understandand and take advantage of the connection (maximize and optimize) that exists between the different types of content and customer needs, combining the best of past, present and emerging models, exponentially broadening their customer base.

    • Gus Balbontin

      Dennis, if it’s commercially viable to offer the information or the music in a particular format then carry on doing so (cassettes? vinyl? CD?). But, the point of my post is to ensure that exercise does not blind you from developing new solutions for your customers. The music industry had the opportunity to solve the customer problem but was too worried about business problems or about current formats customers were still consuming, so it took someone outside to solve it on their behalf. 

      I understand that as publishers we need to offer our information in formats and through channels that can reach our customers now, but the point i am making is that often we try to replicate the distribution method we understand and feel comfortable with, or the one we know how to make money from, rather than thinking how best to solve the customer problems with the new tools and capabilities we now have. It’s the disproportionate amount of effort we put in business problems I am concerned about, it’s the weight we put on the past and present models that don’t let the new models emerge from within publishing, that’s the challenge. Will it take someone from outside the industry to solve the customer problem of accessing information, stories and knowledge?Gus

  • Micah

    There is user experience (e.g. UI), and how and where you enable that, and using what coding languages (HTML5, Objective C, etc).  There is where the content data is stored, and how it is structured – and related standards. There’s delivery and storage mechanisms; streaming, caching, download – and related standards.  Using Flipboard as an example:  I read my Twitter, Facebook, and news feeds in a native app (Flipboard) on a variety of OS devices – mostly because I like the UX, the content is stored in a distributed way on the web, distributed via RSS, and partially cached on my local device. The app has integrated browser views, used in a variety of ways, and invoked by the user, HTML5 is often used for page layout and interactivity in those browser views.  THIS is the future. Hybrids of local and remote data, native and web code, proprietary and open – and standards are key. While oversimplification, as you are doing in your post is easy to write and understand, it is not particularly useful – unless appropriately couched as oversimplification – to make a specific point or explain a specific concept.

  • Anon

    Con artist.

  • Xavier

    Sounds like a con artist trick to me.