Small Business Tip: Challenge Your Customers’ Assumptions And Behavior

Some of the most successful companies in the world (Apple, IKEA, Southwest Airlines) succeed by doing something many companies fear: challenge their customers’ assumptions and behavior.

Apple challenged the assumption that personal computers, mp3 players, mobile phones, and tablets had to be functional and not aesthetic. Apple challenged behavior by persuading customers to focus on the overall experience of buying products, and not merely compare features.

IKEA challenged assumptions and behavior by allowing customers who normally had furniture delivered to their home, to pick-up furniture from the warehouse.

Southwest Airlines challenged the long-held practice and behavior in the airline industry that customers needed tickets, assigned seats, and the ability to purchase directly through travel agents or online travel hubs.

Small businesses and startups can learn an important lesson from these examples: to change behavior, you sometimes have to change people’s assumptions. This is especially true for small businesses and startups that are trying to get people to do something they’ve never done before.

Before Twitter, most people would have said that it would be impossible and futile to attempt to talk in 140 characters. Twitter has succeeded, in part, by persuading people to change their assumptions about the length of effective communications. Before Amazon, most people would have said that it would be inconvenient to buy most of the products you need/want online. Amazon succeeded by persuading people that the convenience of availability, research and quick delivery is often more important than finding the absolute lowest price for an item.

Challenging assumptions is more than just saying “no” to customers who suggest certain features or improvements or to compete by building more features. Time and time again, in industry after industry, we learn that it’s not enough to have a technically superior product. Betamax was technically superior to VHS. HD DVD was technically superior to Blue Ray. Many mp3 players were technically superior to the iPod.

Consumers don’t always buy the technically superior products – they purchase products they believe are best.

Thousands of articles have been written during the past week about what’s NOT included in the upcoming iPhone 4S. Many assumed that because other manufacturers included usb ports, bigger screens, and other bells & whistles on competitive mobile phones, that Apple’s next iPhone would have all of those things too. But Apple has never followed – they’ve always led by asking their customers to change assumptions about how they would use their mobile phone. Staying true to this practice, Apple focused on behavior – introducing Siri with the iPhone 4S (a personal, voice-enabled assistant).

Remember when Apple removed the floppy disk from the iMac G3 in the late 1990s? Many people were shocked and it took nearly all other manufacturers another decade to start selling PCs without a floppy drive. By challenging assumptions and asking their customers to change their behavior (i.e. stop using floppies), Apple has continued to prosper and innovate.

Consider the products and services your company offers. Smart companies innovate by educating and helping to shape their customers’ assumptions. Start by asking some simple questions:

  • What do people assume about the types of products and services you’re selling and how do they behave when researching and buying such products and services?
  • WHY do people behave the way they do when researching and buying such products and services?
  • What would happen if you deliberately did something that people didn’t expect?

How can you challenge your customers’ assumptions and behavior?