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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