Customer lessons: from Beijing, Pain Quotidien and Calvetica

25 Jul

One of the 100 social enterprise truths I posted up as part of POPse! (the pop-up social enterprise think tank) was “Whether you call them a client, an end-user or beneficiary, the customer is still king”. I think social enterprises sometimes lose sight of this, either through focusing on the demands / requests of the funder (the other main customer) or through focusing on the overall impact of what they are trying to do rather than the quality of the service they are providing or delivering. Here’s a few customer lessons for me from the last few weeks…

Customer Lesson 1: I recently spent a few days out in Beijing co-designing a short ‘skills for social entrepreneurs’ programme for Chinese university students (via the British Council). Central to our discussions were that the students were often disconnected from the communities they were aiming to serve with their projects, so market research, community participation and stakeholder stuff would be key (I’ll be finding out how well we achieve this at the end of August when I deliver some of the training with my Chinese counterparts).

Understanding the customer, and selling to them, was made even more apparent to me on my subsequent visit to the Silk Road market, where I indulged in the traditional haggling over goods of questionable provenance. The sales people there put those taking part in the Apprentice to shame: Jedi Jim has nothing on them. Most entrepreneurs could usefully take place in a sales masterclass there: flattery + charm (“you are, what, 25, sir?”), speaking the language (indeed, being fluent in several), discounting (“10 yuan for 1? How about 20 for 3?”), add-ons (“paying with credit card will cost more”), negotiation (I’ve never seen so many shocked faces in such a short space of time), engaging conversation (asking questions about you), concentrating on your needs, and ultimately knowing that there is a deal to be done: never pushing it too far. I’d love to say it ended in a win-win, but I think I probably got schooled.

Customer lesson 2 comes courtesy of Freakonomics and their most recent podcast about a customer finding a mouse in a salad at a branch of Le Pain Quotidien (in New York: obviously that would never happen here…). It provided an interesting insight into how customers react in different ways, the realities of business (sometimes stuff goes wrong), how organisations can react when stuff does go wrong (the CEO did a good job on the cast), and how a focus on quality remains critical to success. Well worth a listen.

It reminded me that when I designed / ran the social franchising programme (Scaling to Success) for the School for Social Entrepreneurs, we invited one of the main investors in Pain Quotidien, Will Hobhouse (who’d previously franchised Whittards) to come and speak. He was fantastic on a whole range of areas, but I particularly remember his response when asked about how he chose his investments: “I go and try them out”. At another recent event, a commercial businessman talked about doing “mystery shopper, random audits, all the usual stuff” in relation to a question about quality. It struck me that that stuff was far from usual in our sector.

Customer lesson 3 comes from an iPhone app that I bought about 6 months ago. It’s called Calvetica and, in my opinion, is vastly superior to the iPhone’s normal Calendar function. It is both more aesthetically pleasing, easy to view (in landscape) and more easy to use. I like it to the extent that I recommended it to quite a few friends who have iPhones. And then I downloaded the latest update…. …and they’ve made a pretty nasty hash of it.In their wisdom, the developers decided to start from scratch, and add a whole host of functions and extras. But in doing so, they did away with what a huge tranche of customers used it for: its uncluttered nature, its aesthetic quality and its landscape view. This has led to plenty of unhappy reviewers on iTunes and on Twitter, and the app moving from a 5 star app to a 3 star overnight.

What went wrong? Well, clearly they didn’t test out the new app on a large enough spread of their customers: the geek end of the spectrum like all the new whizzy functions, but the majority miss the clarity and uncluttered view; it looks like it was the geeks that got asked. It also looks like they’ve designed it more with the bigger iPad screen in mind, again alienating / neglecting their iPhone users. Their tone is way off (“Calvetica is the best calendar app ever made for an electronic device” is the opening sentence in the App store; they’ve tweeted several critical customers with “You’ll understand why if you try it”, rather than responding with more humility / openness). Finally, they seem to have not understood their own USP well enough, so have ended up fixing (in the words of one reviewer) what wasn’t broken.


So what have I learned from these three examples about working with customers? Quite a bit, but here’s the headlines:

– Make connections and try different approaches
– Focus on quality of service + be responsive / flexible
– Know your customers and what their needs / desires are


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