We have all heard the phrase”don’t reinvent the wheel”, meaning don’t waste your time doing something that has already been done. But in fact, reinventing something that everyone takes for granted or thinks can’t be improved on is a very good way of achieving success both in marketing and in business.
In fact, a Boston-based company has just raised more than US$2 million to do exactly that. They are launching a new back wheel for a standard bicycle. Their wheel has a lightweight engine the size and shape of a frisbee attached to the outside. It is powered by small lithium batteries and never needs charging because the energy it consumes going uphill converts to a recharge going downhill. What’s the benefit? Well, you still have to pedal, but it is as easy to pedal going up hills as it is going down. So if you want to beat the traffic and keep fit by riding to work, for example, you don’t have to arrive in a muck sweat and take a shower when you get there.
This new product has two important plusses going for it. First, it is right on trend, with the number of people who choose to cycle to work and to ride a bike socially on weekends increasing exponentially for environmental and health reasons.
Second, it solves a real and important problem for the prospect. Instead of arriving at your destination hot and tired, you can arrive feeling relaxed and fresh, making two-wheel commuting a more viable option for more people.
Of course not all of us are genius inventors, able to imagine a new product and then build and mass produce it. But the good news is you don’t have to be. All you need to reinvent your particular wheel is enough imagination to understand your customer’s frustrations and reduce them.
Here is a really simple example: Householders hate to have to miss a day’s work and waste time hanging around the house waiting for a repairman to arrive. So how about an electrician or plumber giving them an estimated time of arrival, and phoning them 30 minutes beforehand if they are running late. That way the customer can stay at work until it is time to go home and let the repairman in, unless their mobile rings to say he is delayed. There are some tradespeople who already offer this obvious advantage, but the majority do not.
As you can imagine, the simplest product advantages – the ones that don’t need expensive equipment and can be implemented using economical and available methods such as automated SMS messaging – are in the service dimension. i.e. significant differences in the way your product or service is delivered.
It all comes back to my favourite theme song, “You have to have as reason to exist”. All jewellers sell jewellery. All barbers cut hair. All architects design buildings. So if you can’t provide a compelling reason for prospects to choose you, why should they do so? Often the most compelling reason is the lowest price, but it could be much more profitable and less expensive to reinvent your particular wheel rather than cut your prices to the bone.
Here is a real life case history from a major Australian company that required a clever reinvention of the wheel. About 15 years ago, Telstra and Optus were locked in a tense David vs. Goliath struggle for dominance in the fast growing mobile phone market. Telstra had the network and the reputation for coverage and reliability, but Optus had the ‘can do’ attitude and the determination required to reinvent the mobile phone wheel.
Research told them that while Australians were rapidly falling in love with the “stay connected anywhere” benefit of mobile technology, they didn’t like paying high mobile phone call prices. On the other hand, given the cost of building and maintaining mobile networks and the demands of their shareholders, the two phone companies were very reluctant to cut their call rates.
The Optus had the idea that reinvented the mobile phone wheel. Given that their major traffic was business usage and happened during office hours, they had a national network that had a lot of spare capacity after hours and on weekends. So why not give that unused time away to their customers? As a result Optus Yes Time was born, and Optus mobile customers could phone each other free of charge outside business hours.
The result was an immediate leap in Optus market share because they had a really good reason to exist: if you could persuade your friends and family to switch to Optus, you could call each other for free out of business hours. Not surprisingly, thousands did so. And of course, these new customers also made plenty of charged calls to non-Optus numbers too.
It is important to note exactly what Optus did and why it worked. What they did was to show that they understood what consumers really wanted – which was to use a mobile as freely as a fixed line phone. They couldn’t afford to do that and stay in business at that time, but they could afford to give free calls between customers when the network was not busy, proof that they had heard the message and they were making a sincere and meaningful effort to at least part deliver on it.
Importantly, although the Yes Time offer did require a major accounting software upgrade to ensure that customer-to-customer calls during yes times were excluded from the billing system, the cost of this was more than offset by the addition of new customers. And of course the millions of minutes given away cost nothing – they weren’t being sold anyhow!
There important lesson here is that you don’t have to give the customer everything they want if this is impractical or unaffordable, but you do need to show that you understand their need and are at least making a sincere effort to work towards it.
Here is another and more recent case history. Australia Post is making good money out of the sharp increase in online purchasing by Australian consumers, but this was accompanied by a sharp rise in failed deliveries if the addressee was not at home to receive the package from the postie. When this happened, the customer was obliged to personally visit a post office during office hours to collect the parcel – a frustrating waste of time.
To solve this problem and show they understood their customers’ needs, Australia Post reinvented the parcel post delivery wheel by introducing 24 x 7 parcel pick up centres. Just register free of charge, and put your registration number on your order instead of a delivery address. Aus Post then email and SMS you an electronic locker code, and you can visit your designated pick up point at any time in the next 48 hours and enter the code to access and pick up your package. Not only a lot less frustrating for the consumer, but a lot more cost effective tor Australia Post, since the process eliminates a door to door delivery.
If you do want to try and reinvent your wheel, you have to get to know your consumer and understand what they dislike most about your product and service category (just ask your family and friends if you don’t know). And then think of a way to remove or lessen the impact of this drawback. It can be a really cheap and simple idea, as long as it meets a real consumer need and will differentiate your product. Then all you have to do is communicate it successfully … and that’s another story.
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