A lot of discussion on startup and business strategy ultimately comes down to one single piece of advice.
“Build a moat”.
Yes, increasing margins is important. Yes, solving distribution is critical. But before you do all that, you need to build a “moat”.
What’s a moat? Like medieval castles, a moat for your business protects you from competitors and substitutes. It gives you market power, so you can focus on growth, profitability, and all the good stuff.
For many investors, it is the most important thing.
I stayed at a Taj Hotels property in Delhi last week, for a conference. And I was blown away by the customer service there. Thinking back to my days as a business consultant, I stayed at several hotels across the price spectrum while traveling. But Taj hotels – whether Gateway, Vivanta or the higher-end ones – were always head and shoulders above the next best ones. Why, even when I’m just visiting a Taj for a meeting, the customer service there is superior to other hotels that I may actually be staying at.
But this post is not about why Taj is the best hotel. It’s about why it’s the best company, across sectors – how it embodies customer delight like no other company.
Over the years, I’ve interacted with a bunch of companies that excel at customer service. Amazon, for one, always has me marveling at how wonderfully well it treats its customers. Whether the big stuff (the ridiculously good deals that it offers with Prime and the Kindle) or the small (you don’t have to call Amazon if you have any issues; rather, they call you), Amazon has got your back. Many of Amazon’s customer service decisions fly in the face of its bottom line, but they are guaranteed to make customers happy – and Amazon always trades off in favor of its customers. It’s not for nothing that its stated vision is “to become the Earth’s most customer centric company”
But whether Amazon or Zappos (which introduced the “Try different shoes, and send back the ones you don’t like” model), excellent customer service feels ‘processified’. So, over time, these become expected and fail to surprise you anymore. So, while you would become a loyal customer of Amazon (I am), you’d not necessarily become an advocate (I wouldn’t write a blog post solely extolling its virtues). This is excellent customer service no doubt, but it’s not customer delight.
With Taj hotels, on the other hand, customer delight is present in every interaction with guests. The staff – whether in housekeeping, at the restaurants, or room service – all perform random acts of kindness that leave you surprised. So, rather than a customer service process, a customer service culture shines through. When I was preparing for this post, I could remember at least 10 examples of how their customer service left me spellbound. I won’t share all 10 (I wanted to write a short post for a change), but here are a few:
An ex-colleague of mine broke his suitcase trolley while in Nairobi on a project. He tried everywhere, but couldn’t get it fixed – the standard advice was “Buy a new suitcase”. After two weeks of lugging it around on one wheel, he had become inured to the inconvenience. But the moment he entered the Taj Palace in Delhi, the bellman came up to him and said “Can I get that fixed for you?” This was over 4 years ago, but he still uses that example to highlight the ‘jugaad’ innovation approach in India. I think, though, that the lesson is far deeper – he would not have received the same response at every other hotel.
During my most recent visit, the waiter at breakfast remembered that I had ordered a dosa on the first day and brought it to my table himself the next day. I marveled to myself for a bit about how, among a multitude of guests, he remembered what I wanted. But when I started eating, I realized that he had also remembered what chutney I hadn’t touched the previous time – it was missing from my plate! I was quite spellbound at the detail-orientedness that goes into their customer service (and remember, they don’t have big data algorithms churning at the back!). And this is not necessarily designed to show every customer they care – if I wasn’t similarly detail-oriented, I may not have noticed. This is not lip service customer care – they genuinely want guests to feel comfortable.
From the previous example, you may have guessed I have OCD. But the hotel housekeeping staff didn’t know that. Yet, when I returned to my hotel room after a conference session, I noticed that they had velcro-ed all the stray charging wires I had left hanging from plug-points. A great convenience, but one many guests are liable to not notice. But ones that do are guaranteed to be pleasantly surprised at how customer delight permeates every single interface with the Taj’s staff.
This stellar customer service is not restricted to the hotel’s guests. I had a meeting at a Vivanta once, and I was an hour early. I ordered coffee at the hotel’s restaurant, and was quite a prima donna about it – I asked them to bring it to the lobby (quite a distance away), as there were no free plug points at the restaurant and I wanted to charge my laptop. Not only did they cheerfully comply, they were equally cheerful in saying that it’s on the house when I asked for the cheque an hour later.
A common theme across these examples is the element of surprise. And I think it’s essential. This tiny overlap of excellent customer service and complete unexpectedness is what really creates customer delight.
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Another critical element of customer delight is service recovery. Anyone can smile pleasantly at genial and benign customers. But how do you rescue a negative situation – a disgruntled customer, an overturned wine glass, a missing booking, etc. – in a way that transforms the irate customer into a loyal one? Sure, you can create many customer-friendly policies like a free dessert or a large discount to defuse such situations, but to truly delight even the most agitated nay-sayer, you need to go above and beyond. These extreme cases are what distinguish merely excellent customer service companies from ones that delight customers.
And the Taj staff came through in what is perhaps the most extreme case of all – the 26/11 attack in Mumbai, when terrorists laid seige to the Taj Mahal Palace hotel at Gateway of India. Numerous employees, in different parts of the hotel, were instrumental in shepherding the guests to safety – all of them made sure that guests came through unscathed. They were the last men out. And in some cases, they did not get out.
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The Taj has thus created a culture – not a mission, not a process – of customer service. And unlike a mission statement “We exist for and because of our customers” that’s only read out sonorously at company meetings, this has trickled down to the lowest level employees across departments – employees are empowered to make customers happy, even if it means extra costs.
This willingness of Taj’s employees to go beyond their remit – in both traditional and extreme situations – is how great customer service stories are made.
I can’t afford to stay at the Taj whenever I travel, but it’s one hotel I look forward to visiting, even if just for a meeting. Do you guys have any other examples of such companies – where you look forward to just interacting with them? Would love to hear about them – do comment below / mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org / tweet at @jithamithra. And yes, do subscribe – I post roughly once a week, on startups, business models, consumer behavior, etc.
PS. I’ve just started a newsletter called The Startup Weekly with Abhishek Agarwal, a close friend, curating the most interesting articles, case studies, etc. for startups that we come across every week. It would be a good addition to your inbox. Sign up here – the second issue goes out this Saturday! And here’s a link to the first issue, in case you need some more convincing!
We constantly read about companies that have created barriers to entry – through technology, intellectual property, large-scale manufacturing, or sometimes even by throwing a ton of money at a problem. For startups, this barrier to entry is a constant refrain, especially in conversations with potential investors – “What’s your barrier to entry? What asset are you building that’s hard to replicate?”. And this is a hard question with no easy answers, especially for a young company that’s not building a high-tech, proprietary product – a bigger competitor with deeper pockets could appear at the ramparts anytime, and replicate exactly what you’re doing.
But what if just focus on a particular user segment could help you develop a competitive advantage? What if expending all efforts to serve a particular market niche or user segment could help you unearth a resilient barrier to entry?
I read a book called ‘Good Strategy Bad Strategy’ last year and was struck by how insightful it was. I’ve revisited my notes from the book at least twice now, each time capturing a new nuance. It’s a must read for students of strategy, advisors on strategy, and practitioners. Having been all three (in that order, oddly enough), this is right up my alley.
The book had many great ideas on sources of power for companies – what gives a company lasting supremacy in its market. One idea that stayed with me was of single-minded focus – how focus on a particular type of user can be a sustainable source of power or competitive advantage. How would this work? Let’s dig in – this feels like another 1800 word post.
Any company’s business model has 9 different parts, as below:
The author, Richard Rumelt, points out that to focus on a specific user segment, you need to make coordinated changes across multiple or all parts of your business model. Thus, your final offering to the customer is a sum of many moving parts that have all been finely configured – a sum that, as the cliché goes, is more than its parts. Applying such focus takes incredible coordination of policies, which, along with their interlocking and overlapping effects, can then confer unassailable advantages and make you a hard act to follow.
I know this seems very philosophical (a little like bad strategic advice!), so let’s look at a few examples to illustrate this better:
Rumelt uses the example of IKEA to illustrate this concept. IKEA is a furniture retailer that sells ready-to-assemble furniture. It targets do-it-yourself or DIY users, who love the feeling of putting something together. It has been hugely successful across multiple countries, but 70 years since its founding, no credible competitor has appeared or lasted. That’s sustainable competitive advantage!
IKEA has no secret sauce in terms of patented technologies for furniture, greater marketing strength, etc. The source of IKEA’s lasting advantage is, instead, the coordination between the different elements of its business model to serve its target segment. For a competitor to challenge IKEA, they don’t just have to sell ready-to-assemble furniture – they’ll have to change their whole business model.
They’ll have to design new types of furniture;
They’ll have to start carrying larger inventory;
They’ll have to create their own, branded stores; and
They’ll have to change their selling models.
Thus, copying IKEA is not a simple matter. IKEA’s policies are so different from the norm in the furniture industry that any competitor would have to replicate ALL of them to meaningfully compete for the same user segment. Adopting one or two of these policies and implementing them, even perfectly, would be useless – it would add huge expenses without providing any real competition.
Apple is another example. Over the years, Apple has targeted its products at premium customers who want a superior experience – well-designed products that just work. They’re not interested in the most technologically advanced products with the most bells and whistles – they want products that do their job simply and well. Oh, and there’s snob value too.
Apple has made several interdependent decisions to target this group:
Complete ownership of the product: Take the iPhone. Unlike its closest competitor, Android, Apple controls the entire product – the OS, the hardware, user interface, etc. This allows it to deliver a very coordinated and quality user experience.
Complete ownership of computer ecosystem: Moreover, Apple coordinates the experience across all its products. The Apple ecosystem can satisfy all your computing needs – desktop, laptop, tablet, phone and music player. All of these products follow the same design language, and work together seamlessly – they sync with each other very easily, without any need to fiddle with system settings.
Branded retail stores with a luxury experience
Marketing mainly to premium customers who don’t mind spending more – this not only raises product revenue, but also increases the long tail of revenue from app store downloads, music downloads via iTunes, etc.
The reason Apple’s position in the market is unassailable is that a competitor can’t just copy one or two things to start selling to the same group of customers. The competitor would have to copy everything, a formidable task even for very nimble companies. And copying sequentially won’t work – you can’t begin to deliver the Apple or IKEA value proposition without copying everything from the outset, in a coordinated manner. Which is why, even though Android and its partner OEMs have copied a lot of product design elements from Apple (in fact, the first Samsung Galaxy S was an iPhone in all but name), they haven’t been able to displace Apple from its position as the proprietor of all things cool.
Thus, the business models of IKEA and Apple are like a chain – multiple independent elements interlock to engineer a truly durable value proposition. As for a competitor, the flipside of a chain-linked model applies – your proposition is only as strong as your weakest link. Focusing on strengthening just one or two aspects of your model won’t increase your ability to compete even one bit – you need to strengthen everything, all at once.
Let’s try and apply this mental model of a chain to a few other sectors. Are there other companies as well, which have used focused, chain-linked business models to derive competitive advantage?
3. Wal-mart: In the 60s and 70s, Sears and Kmart dominated retail. But they mainly served large towns or cities that could ‘support’ a large retailer. Wal-mart changed the game by creating large-format stores away from cities, allowing enormous spaces at lower costs. It positioned itself as a ‘discounter’, something other players avoided like the plague. And it was able to make money while offering deep discounts, through several interlocking innovations:
Extremely wide product portfolio with deep discounts on some products, cross-subsidized by other high-margin products
Cutting-edge technology to track customer purchase behavior, and tailor portfolio accordingly
Agile supply chain, keeping its stores well-stocked with the right products very efficiently
Thus, several innovations, all focused on offering products at the lowest prices, gave Wal-mart lasting competitive advantage. By 2002, Wal-mart was the largest retailer in the world, and Kmart was bankrupt.
4. Dell: If you wanted to buy a desktop in the US in the 80s or 90s, your only options were to either buy a standard configuration through a retailer, or buy individual PC components to customize the machine yourself. Unless you built the PC yourself, you did not get much choice in the product or configuration you wanted. Dell saw an opportunity to change this by offering customized configurations, and thereby targeting the more technologically adept consumer.
Dell took a number of hard decisions to make this happen. It created an easy to use online / phone interface for users to configure computers of their choice. It delivered this promise through a mass customizing production process, and built a direct-to-customer distribution channel. None of these decisions were easy to replicate even singly, much less in lockstep. The result – a lucrative business model that stood unchallenged during the PC boom of the 90s.
OK, these are standard business school case studies. Let’s look at a few newer companies.
5. Innocent: The British healthy drinks / smoothies player has built a strong position in its home market. Innocent offers health-oriented users very fresh fruit-based drinks – their promise is, zero preservatives, only natural fruit. Offering this focused proposition means a number of business model decisions – sourcing the best fruits only, producing for short shelf life, faster cold chain logistics to get the product to retailer shelves very quickly, and so on. All separate decisions, coordinated to deliver user value. Competitors have found it very hard to replicate this – Pepsico, after years of trying to compete in this market, finally bought a smaller competitor to gain a toehold.
6. Zara: Zara has carved itself a preeminent position in the ‘fresh fashion’ space. Zara’s stores are always stocked with the latest trends – Zara gets clothes from design to outlets in 10-15 days flat. And it has done this by tailoring multiple parts of its operating model to accentuate this speed:
Much larger design team than other apparel brands – its 200 designers ensure a steady flow of new designs, taking advantage of the latest trends and feedback from customers.
While most apparel brands manufacture in China, Zara manufactures in Europe close to its main markets – this gives it a head-start of at least 1.5-2 months.
Short production runs, with limited quantities – Zara doesn’t run more than one production cycle for most of its products. If a particularly striking outfit runs out at its stores, that’s it. You won’t see it again. From a user’s point of view, this drives a purchase decision faster. If you plan to come back tomorrow to buy a dress, it may not be there.
Putting these aspects together, other brands find it very difficult to catch up with Zara – all of these are major business model revamps that are difficult to pull off, whether alone or in coordination with each other.
These and several other successful companies show that focus and coordination can create a massive barrier to entry and lasting competitive advantage, keeping challengers at bay for years to come. It’s a telling reminder to businesses – you don’t need cutting-edge technology or a massive fund-raise, just good old-fashioned customer service will do!
What do you think? Are there any other consequences – positive or negative – of focusing your business model on a specific user segment? Would love to hear from you – mail me at email@example.com, tweet at @jithamithra, or comment here on this blog. And do subscribe here – I post roughly once a week, on startups, business models, consumer behavior, etc.
PS. I’ve just started a newsletter called The Startup Weekly with Abhishek Agarwal, a close friend, curating the most interesting articles, case studies, etc. for startups that we come across every week. Would be a good addition to your inbox (so much for conquering it). Sign up here – first issue goes out this Saturday!