Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online
Have you noticed that more and more companies are marketing "simplicity" as a reason to buy their products or services? For example, Philips Electronics advertises "Sense and simplicity" while Bank of America promotes "Clear, easy-to-understand products." Simplicity also is the subtle message that Schwab conveys when it says "Talk to Chuck" and that Fidelity suggests when it says just "Stay on the line."
The reality is that simplicity is highly appealing in a world that is getting more and more complex -- where consumers have too many choices, where technology is constantly evolving, and where the political and economic environment is unpredictable. In the midst of all this instability and change, people want to get back to basics. They want uncomplicated products, straightforward guidance, and things that work quickly and simply the first time, without lots of extra effort.
What is interesting about this phenomenon is that it is in sharp contrast with the thinking of the past few years -- which was that consumers wanted unlimited choice so that they could customize their products and services to fit their own unique needs and lifestyles. As such, technology companies pushed for more and more bells and whistles, while other firms drove towards mass customization. The result was a huge array of choices that became almost overwhelming and costly.
For example, office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller discovered that it was giving consumers so many choices for customizing its popular Aeron chair that it had to be prepared to produce over four million variations on the basic model -- even though only a few thousand configurations were actually being ordered. Similarly, Cisco Systems learned from its top corporate customers that all the new features in its networking products were actually causing instability in the corporate networks because they couldn't be integrated easily with existing hardware and software.
It's easy to create slogans and marketing materials about simplicity. The challenge is to truly make things easier for the customer so that simplicity becomes a competitive advantage.
To do that, companies need to listen to their customers and truly engage them in dialogue about their needs -- and their perceptions of products and services offered. For example, Cisco works with a number of customer advisory groups that meet regularly with senior executives and product developers; Fidelity executives either answer their 800-number consumer phone lines or listen to tapes of the calls; ConAgra Foods product managers make field visits to consumers' homes and to grocery stores.
In addition to listening to customers, companies also need to design their products and services from the customer perspective. When Intuit developed its small business accounting software package, the product developers realized that most small business owners were not familiar with accounting jargon, and in fact were intimidated by it. So instead of using the term "accounts receivable," they called it "money in." Similarly, "accounts payable" became "money out." As a result of developing a product from the customer perspective, Intuit sold 100,000 copies of the software the first year.
Not every company needs to create its own version of the iPod, an icon of simplicity. But there is no reason why every company can't listen to their own customers and design products and services in ways that better satisfy their customers' desires for greater simplicity and ease of use. If you don't, your competitors probably will.
Ron Ashkenas is a managing partner of Robert H. Schaffer & Associates, a Stamford, Connecticut consulting firm and the author of the forthcoming book Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done.