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The Challenge of the Functional Customer

September 23, 2011

I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all. — Alexis de Tocqueville

Your startup had better be all about innovation. If it’s not, then you’re planning to directly compete, based on relatively little experience, resources, and economies of scale, with big existing companies that have every advantage over you. Innovation – in product, process, or market – is your only hope.

And therein lies the problem: Startups need innovation desperately; customers reject it almost universally. Getting customers to:

  1. hear about
  2. pay attention to
  3. try
  4. assess fairly
  5. remember, and
  6. commit to

a really innovative product or service is a huge job, bigger than (and different from) the marketing job faced by existing companies in the marketplace. You can’t begin to compete without understanding why customers hate innovation, even when they say they want it.

In their groundbreaking work, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey from Harvard talk about “immunity to change.” Kegan and Lahey are concerned mostly with team members in large corporations, but the problem they describe: why people reject change, even change they think is very important, holds for your customers too.

Here’s the thesis: people are full of fears, anxieties, and needs, but they are generally functional. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail, but unless they’re really dying, chances are excellent that they have adopted a way of life that more or less works. You might think that people whose way of life only marginally works would be open to alternatives, or at least more open than those who are very content. Usually, though, it’s the opposite – the more marginal and unhappy your existence, the more you cling to how you do things – because the alternative, real failure, is terrifying.

Here’s an example: I get a ton of mail every day, most of it junk, invitations, or reading matter, with a light sprinkling of bills, personal correspondence, and other stuff I actually do need to attend to. This happens every day, in electronic form in my inbox, and in paper form through a slot in my door. In both cases, I just let it pile up. When the piles seem overwhelming, I spend a few hours and go through them.

Over the years, I’ve tried to adopt a better approach – plastic cubby hole devices, mail client add-ons, processes that I invent and tell myself to stick to. But somehow, I never seem to change. Why? Because as bad as my system is, it’s functional. I may get behind in my bills, but my water and electricity are still on. I may seem rude to a friend whose email I ignored, but a simple apology puts things right. As much as I hate my “system,” I absolutely depend on it. Without it, I’d be homeless in the cold and dark, without a working cell phone or a friend to call anyway.

And you, you startup company, with your clever email organizing app or portable scanner or whatever? You have the absolute gall to come to me and say “Come on, we know your system sucks. Dump it and leap into the homeless, friendless, cold and dark abyss. Our new gadget will hold you up – we promise.”

How do you get customers to overcome resistance to change? Hint: it’s not by improving your value proposition.

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3 Comments
  1. Looking forward to the answer(s).

  2. It’s a trick question! Don’t count on your customers to change. Enable them to use your product without having to change. Just, suddenly, their life is better.

    OK, yes, mayge there are some business models that require a customer to change. If your’s is one of those, do everything you can to reduce risk for the customer — Zappos comes to mind. They include a prepaid shipping return label with your order. Just in case you want to send it back.

    –Tucker

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