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How could the breakdown of a decade-old washing machine become a parable for how companies must do business in the early 21st-Century?
Funny you should ask.
Like most people, my wife and I don’t shop for washers and dryers very often. So when our washer finally gave up, we found ourselves back in the market for a new one—an endeavor we hadn’t done in about 10 years.
And what a difference a decade makes. Companies that manufacture electronics such as cell phones and flat-screen TVs now offer a full line of washers and dryers, and stores known for selling computers and software have whole sections devoted to refrigerators and washers and dryers.
And here I thought it was still a simple process – visit the store over the weekend, buy a Maytag, be back in time for lunch. Instead, it was – well, bewildering. I mean, it’s great to have choices, but we were simply unprepared for the veritable forest of brands, styles, and features we encountered. So my wife decided it was time for a bit of research.
One washer-dryer pair seemed to have features and attributes we liked most – the right capacity, a steam-drying function, something else, I don’t remember – it grilled sandwiches or walked the dog or something – so that’s where my wife started when she went onto the Internet.
Sure enough, after a bit of digging, she found reviews and postings on several completely independent blogs that discussed precisely the make and model of washer we were considering. And, sure enough, not all of the feature sentiment was positive. In fact, several people complained in detail about the lint trap that required frequent manual cleaning to prevent damp lint buildup, and the rubber door gasket that didn’t seal properly and didn’t dry out completely between cycles. The result? A musty, moldy smell that first won’t leave the washer, then won’t leave your clothes, then won’t leave your laundry room.
So we crossed that washer off our list, went back to the store, and with a salesman looked at a few different machines. When we came to this musty washer, my wife pulled out her research and asked him if he’d heard about this issue. He hadn’t.
And that’s when it hit me.
First, I realized the information control for major purchases has shifted. It no longer rests with the manufacturer, or with the retailer, or even with the experts (like Consumer Reports). It now rests entirely with consumers themselves. They generate this information, they share it, they seek it out, and they sure as heck use it.
But even more important, I thought, “Well, we discovered this important product information. I wonder if the company has, too?” This information was very important to us imagine how important it would be to the manufacturer – especially since it’s out there for anyone (like the competition) to find.
Take this further, still. What other attributes of this washer have consumers publicly disparaged? Conversely, what features are highly praised, which the company could then add to other models and which it could use as the basis for an effective marketing campaign? Based on other blog conversations, review sites, etc., how does this washer/dryer combo stack up against the competition? Also, this information is generated virtually in real-time – so if the company were to launch a new product would it learn within just a few weeks what customers thought, or would it take months of traditional research and analysis, such as through a focus group? And when the product launched, would the company already know what customers specifically didn’t like about its competitors’ products?
Now bring this anecdote into the workplace. Searching through countless blogs, discussion groups, and other online conversations is certainly akin to sifting through statistically valid volumes of market research data for tidbits and insight into market behavior. And this of course is a proven technique for deriving market insight, something you can do repeatably, predictably, in scientific fashion. So you don’t have to wait for anything in your home, or your neighbor’s or co-worker’s home, to break down. You can set about right now routinely to pull valuable nuggets of product and market intelligence out from the volume of data available now, just waiting to be mined and interpreted.
Every parable has a moral. And the moral of this story is: This is how business – even traditionally slow-moving business, like home appliances – is done, today. The information is out there. The companies that find it faster and act on it sooner will flourish.