Isn’t it time to start thinking outside the cliché?

*Originally published as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail on April 9, 2016: click here to access.

Every time I hear somebody use the phrase, “Let’s think outside the box,” my frustration boils over. Such statements remind me why so many businesses today struggle and even fail.

People who believe they need to think outside the box have all missed a fundamental reality: It’s been a while since there was any “box” in business. There may be a status quo, but nobody goes there anymore. It’s been replaced by continuous change.

The need for continuing innovation and course corrections should be glaringly obvious to all leaders and managers. I mean, really: Did somebody miss the fact that we can all communicate directly with our customers now in real time? Or that our wristwatches are now digital business and life assistants that speak to us and guide us through the day?

If we have to create a metaphor to replace “the box,” it might be a virtual-reality video game. These digital diversions are fast and all-absorbing. They engage all of your faculties, and get more difficult with every level.

We need to learn, understand and process the fast-changing business environments just as we navigate the next level of a game. We must constantly adjust, react to new threats, and take advantage of emerging opportunities. One slip and it could be “game over.”

How do you keep pace with continuous changes in the marketplace? For me, the one guaranteed success strategy is staying focused on your customers. In a World of Warcraft context, your customer is your game score. Delighting (or failing) your customer is how you win or lose.

With today’s immersive digital games, you slip easily into digital avatars or personae that bring you into new worlds of fantasy, combat or sport. Refocusing on your customer involves a similar transition: creating new models of customer behaviour that enable you to better understand their feelings and experiences, and thus engage them in stronger and deeper relationships.

Customer success today requires continuous commitment to developing and refining customer personae (models of your most important customer types) and customer journey maps (models of your customers’ experience as they move from initial contact to purchase to continuing relationship). These two approaches help you develop deeper knowledge of who your customers are, how and why they buy, and what challenges you face in keeping them as customers.

If you hope to take your business to the next level (as in the video game context), you first need to improve your knowledge of your customer. Be more curious. Ask more questions.

Customer personae bring each of your identified target groups to life in a personal and meaningful way. Developing customer personae means creating authentic, insightful descriptions of each target group that include:

  • Relevant details about their key needs;
  • Understanding of their unmet needs, or where your next opportunities lie;
  • Identification of “hot button” issues that can make or break sales opportunities and continuing relationships.

At my firm, once we have a clear understanding of who our clients are and what motivates them to purchase, we create a customer journey map for each identified target group. This means understanding all of the steps they go through in deciding to purchase our products and services:

  • Identification of need
  • Sourcing of solution provider
  • Modelling the customer’s decision-making process
  • Uncovering “tipping-point” factors
  • Driving purchase decisions
  • Assessing post-purchase satisfaction

So important are these customer-recognition insights that we post them on our office walls. They remind us why we are creating solutions in the first place. They articulate the decisions that our customers make and the steps that they have to follow to purchase and be happy with that purchase.

Once we understand that customers are always looking for something better, we can leave behind the “outside the box” cliché and start thinking inside our customers’ lives and aspirations.


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About Ken Tencer

Ken Tencer is chief executive officer of branding and innovation company Spyder Works Inc. and the co-author of two books on innovation, including the bestseller Cause a Disturbance. Follow him on Twitter at @90percentrule.