Alan Mitchell: I’m not a consumer, but an individual company

Unless marketers begin to treat people as individuals rather than consumers they will never offer truly convenient products or services, says Alan Mitchell

Convenience. We all know it’s important. But just how important? Look back at marketing history, and you will see that virtually every sweep-the-board new product or service has offered a compelling element of convenience. Candidates for the top ten must include running water, electricity, the automatic washing machine, the motor car, disposable nappies, the package holiday, fast food and the mobile phone. Just imagine life without them.

Wherever somebody comes up with a brilliant way of achieving the same core objective with less investment of time, effort or hassle, consumers stampede for it. The modern European household uses the energy equivalent of 150 domestic servants. If you can outsource unrewarding work to machines or products (or other people), then why not? Before an innovation comes along, the sheer inconvenience encountered in trying to realise value from a service can stifle a whole market. One reason for the dizzying success of package holidays was the fact that they undertook the insurmountably daunting task of organising and co-ordinating travel, hotel transfers and bookings and so on for the consumer.

Yet “convenience” always seems to be said in a slightly pejorative tone: a hint that, somehow, it is akin to laziness and decadence. Beware double standards. Companies are forever pursuing their own “convenience”, but they call it something much grander: “productivity”. It is the same thing – achieving more, in less time, at a lower overall cost – but it sounds much more important and worthy. In fact, convenience and productivity are different ways of describing the same underlying quest. Convenience is simply the quest for improved personal – as opposed to corporate – productivity. And both quests are ceaseless.

So, do marketers give convenience the attention it deserves? Here’s a suggestion: the false distinction between consumer convenience and corporate productivity is a symptom of a much deeper issue. There is a blinkered view of value-creation, engendered by “consumer-think”.

The consumer is a fictional entity invented by producers. Look at the real world and you will find lots of people. But you won’t ever find a consumer – because a consumer is a human being stripped of all attributes other than those that relate to its role as a unit of demand for a specific producer’s products. When a car marketer looks at me, he looks at me as a unit of demand for cars. His interest in me extends only as far as it helps him in his task of selling cars. Likewise the soap powder company, the beer company, the financial services provider, the telecoms company, and so on. By looking at “consumers”, marketers slice people into thousands of different fragments and lose sight of the whole.

Now, reframe convenience as “personal productivity” and look at me as a company producing my own life, rather than as a mere consumer. As Me plc, I do everything the largest corporation in the world does. I buy raw materials and inputs. I work on them, processing, assembling and integrating them into more valuable outputs (like turning food ingredients into a meal, or financial services products into financial management). I hire people to do work for me. I invest in capital equipment. I do maintenance and repairs. I do logistics (transport and haulage), accounting, forecasting and planning, administration, co-ordination and general management.

But I do all these things without the help of a dedicated, professional corporate functional specialisation. And marketers ignore most of my needs for improved productivity in these areas, because they are rendered invisible by the filter of “consumer focus”.

Seen from this perspective, the untapped potential of the market for so-called convenience is awesome. It points to the possibility of completely new services. Where is the consumer’s equivalent of a professional corporate buying department, for instance? How much value could that add? It also points to the reconfiguration of existing markets.

Take financial management. To improve my personal productivity here, I need hassleand error-free money transmission and administration, improved budgeting tools (along with variance alerts and analysis), an ongoing optimal balance of savings versus borrowings, mixed between shortand long-term instruments, depending on my personal objectives, plus low-cost execution of all decisions. I need all this to be achieved in a way that reduces the time I have to spend doing this boring stuff, while increasing the value of my financial assets.

Such a service cuts across existing corporate and divisional boundaries and skill sets. It requires new channels and types of interaction (it is probably impossible without the Internet) plus a very different relationship between client and provider, with much higher levels of trust and (probably) much greater transparency. It would also demand that the provider shift internal incentives away from margins on the sale of products, aligning them with the achievement of client objectives: a sort of performance-related pay. At the same time, it would need new divisions of labour (and responsibility) between client and provider.

Impossible? The preserve of a tiny niche market, for the ultra-rich? Perhaps – for the moment. But new technologies and mindsets are pushing us in this direction. Just look at the burgeoning number of “One accounts” that combine mortgage, current account, credit card and savings into one integrated package. And they’re just a start.

We can see a similar trend at Centrica, which is seeking to evolve from selling energy towards providing appliance insurance and repair, and thence to offering integrated home-management services.

So here’s the message. Until very recently, marketers have tended to see “convenience” as one item on a long menu of possible product or service attributes. The opposite view might be more helpful. The job of companies is to help Me plc to maximise the value I create in my life. Some do it best by generating new, better, richer, more rewarding experiences – that is what made TV such a blockbuster. Others do it by helping me bring about personal productivity improvements in specific areas of my life. Products or services should be seen as attributes and ingredients of this broader task. How many companies out there are up to being my personal productivity partner?

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