I have spent most of my working life seeking innovative solutions to challenging problems. It’s a passion. And, working with some of the most talented and creative teams, I am proud to have been involved in some truly game-changing plays.
But how do you become a game-changer? It’s the question I once asked a mentor early in my career and his answer was a fascinating insight… a nugget of pure 24-carat wisdom that is still my touchstone to this day.
“There’s no magic nostrum for innovation,” he explained. “No special knack to becoming a game-changer. But there is a NAK…
“Never settle for the status quo.” When someone tells you: ‘this is how it’s done’, always ask why? Be obstinate. Nothing new was ever invented by slavishly following convention. All pioneers have this perverse gene in them – so don’t be frightened to question and to look for a different approach; you may well find a far better way of doing things.
“Always identify with the end-user.” Clever ideas are only ‘clever’ if they deliver a genuine, end-user benefit. Genius has to be anchored in end results. So always put yourself in the customer’s shoes. What do consumers really want… how can you help them to find it… what is the simplest, most cost-effective solution? Very often, the answer lies in empowering the consumer to meet their own needs.
“Keep your eye on the bigger picture.” To be a game-changer you have to be passionate and very, very focused. But that can also be extremely dangerous. Dedication to any task can induce chronic tunnel vision. It can lead you down blind alleys where you quickly lose sight of the bigger picture. So, to get everything in perspective, make it a personal discipline to keep stepping back. Myopia is the game-changer’s biggest enemy.
Let me put those thoughts into context with a few examples.
Recent scandals have rocked confidence in our banks. PPI, money laundering, aggressive tax avoidance and Libor rigging have seriously undermined their reputation for probity. But, in truth, this is not a new phenomenon. In the early 1990s, the FS industry was dogged by a similar controversy over the mis-selling of investment products…
Seeing that many customers were largely ignorant of financial products, some sales people had cynically used this naivety to peddle unsuitable products that paid the highest commissions. This behaviour was isolated to a few offenders, but the fall-out infected the whole industry.
Increasingly suspicious of all investment advice, people – and their savings – were leaving some banks and building societies in alarming numbers. Although unaffected by this exodus, my client wanted to restore consumer confidence by proving that customers were – and always had been – their first priority. The solution came in a bold game-changing initiative…
I and my team argued that reputational damage to an industry is a cancer that can only be removed with radical surgery. If the people selling investment plans had lost public confidence, then you should cut them out of the equation… at least until trust is restored.
It wasn’t quite the solution that management expected. But they were clearly intrigued. We went on to explain how the building society could harness IT to put the customer in control. A user-friendly application could present all of the savings and loan options. Customers could then study the merits of each option without pressure or fear of bias. They could also ask direct questions of the system at any time and receive straight answers every time. Above all, customers could pick the plans that exactly met their expectations and needs.
It was so beguiling that the client bought into the idea. We were commissioned to build a PC-based system that mimicked the customer experience. It replicated every step from the second they entered a branch office to the moment they walked out – hopefully as a very satisfied customer.
The home page showed the outside of a virtual branch. There were no keyboards or instructions – everything was touchscreen and designed to be totally intuitive to anyone of any age. If you touched the front door it opened and you entered the virtual branch to be greeted by a receptionist. We used real branch staff as familiar video hosts to explain the layout of the virtual branch. We also adopted surroundings that would be familiar to every customer; such as posters, brochures and calculators. People entering this virtual world were able to examine the entire product range and request instant quotations to take away with them. We even gave customers the chance to contact an advice centre – via a video conference link – just in case they preferred to speak to a member of staff.
We installed the system in a prescribed set of branches and, for scientific rigour, we established a second ‘control group’ of branches. The results were both impressive and unequivocal. Sales in the branches using our system were at least 10% higher than those in the control group.
“The screen gives me so much information – I have all the facts I need to make a sensible decision.”
“There’s no feeling of pressure… no-one pushing me to sign anything. What a change!”
“I now have the confidence to talk to someone about taking the next steps… steps of my choosing.”
Many customers spoke about this very real sense of empowerment. And that message wasn’t lost on management. If a pure information system could empower a 10% sales uplift; just imagine what an interactive sales platform might achieve! And with that thought in mind, we were commissioned to take the concept one big step forward…
Could the system actually make a sale? To answer that question, we gathered together a team of the client’s top sales people. We then sat them down with an Artificial Intelligence programmer who had been carefully briefed on the rules governing the sale of regulated products. We also called in the services of a User Experience designer to obtain a better understanding of people’s risk appetites and option requirements. And last, but certainly not least, we asked a group of customers to help us develop the system that would be designed for their stand-alone use.
The final result blew everyone away. It even won the support of the FSA…
We invited the FSA to assess the system for compliance. They tested and analysed every aspect of the new application. And then they signed off. It was the first time they had ever approved a sales platform that entirely removed the need for a sales person.
Remember, this happened in the early 90s – long before Java, Windows 95, and the first PlayStation were launched. It is a tribute to a client who not only had the vision to see the possibilities but also the courage to take on the challenge… and the very real risk of failure.
However, it is also a reflection on those difficult times. And perhaps this is the most important take-home message. Necessity may be the mother of invention; but a crisis is the big daddy of game-changing. When everyone is mired in controversy that is the precise moment to stand out from the crowd.
“In order to be irreplaceable, one must first be different.”
Coco Chanel not only expressed those words, she personified them. Throughout her life, Chanel was many steps ahead of conventional thinking. She was a truly inspired and inspiring icon. But it’s very difficult to be so different. Few have the confidence to be really distinctive. Most people prefer the mid-ground of unremarkable conformity. And that is a painful lesson you have to learn as a game-changer… one that I discovered to my cost.
Once, as a freshly appointed partner of Accenture, I was asked to fly to Tokyo to support my Japanese colleagues. We needed to demonstrate our innovative credentials to one of the largest insurance companies in Asia.
As our team was taken to meet the CEO and his most senior managers, we passed through a vast hall where people – all dressed identically in sombre grey uniforms – were busy processing forms. “These people,” I was informed, “are handling our annual car insurance renewals.” I looked again at the serried ranks of human automatons and slowly the germ of an idea crystallised in my mind.
Some minutes later we were ushered into the presence of the senior Board. After formal greetings we sat down and the interpreter turned to me: “Our CEO is most interested to learn of your innovative ideas for his business.” It was an invitation I couldn’t resist…
I abandoned our game-plan. We had a carefully rehearsed presentation but, impetuously, I decided to re-write the opening script: “please tell me,” I asked “why does your company deliberately sacrifice its valued clients every year?”
My provocative question met with a shocked silence. Finally, after a whispered conversation with the CEO, the interpreter replied: “With respect, we don’t… all customers are precious assets. Why do you accuse us of sacrificing them?”
Conscious that I could easily cause offence, I chose my words carefully. I explained that insurance was a commodity product. Every year, as policies came up for renewal, customers went in search of a better deal. In such a price sensitive market, there is little brand loyalty so all companies are caught in a costly dilemma: cut margins or lose customers.
I could see heads solemnly nodding in agreement, so I felt confident enough to raise the stakes: “Since this problem is triggered by one annual event, why do you sell policies that last only 12 months?”
There was another long pause but, this time, it was an enlightened silence before the CIO spoke: “Sore wa, gyōkai no kanreidearu tame” (“because it is the industry’s convention”). This was the answer I needed. “Then perhaps it’s time to break with convention and step-off the treadmill,” I suggested. “Surely, drivers don’t suddenly perform so differently after 12 months that your company would need to change its prices, terms or conditions. If you offered people 2, 3 or even 4 year policies you could lock in loyalty, revenues and profits.” This provoked an animated debate. We went on to complete our planned presentation and to have a very wide-ranging discussion. Indeed, we came away feeling extremely positive. But, in the days that followed, this confidence began to evaporate. There was a curious silence from the client. All of our gentle requests for follow-up meetings were politely side-stepped. And as the weeks slipped by, I had to concede that I had made an error of judgement. I had ignored a golden rule of game-changing…
In my desire to impress, I had overlooked this fundamental issue. Management curiosity should never be confused for management commitment. Many senior executives are keen to learn about game-changing ideas but surprisingly few are radical enough to become pioneer adopters. So check that there is a real appetite for radical change. Also, never try to evangelise the risk-averse. It’s a waste of time – for everyone concerned. Focus instead on prospects that are hungry for innovation and have a real need to change. And, finally, concentrate on delivering real, measurable value to the stakeholders that matter most: the end customers. To illustrate this point, let me leave you with a true story. One in which I had no part to play but which I feel has a profound message for all of us…
A new CEO was appointed to head up a famous brand of perfume makers. She gathered together her top team and asked them a simple question: “What business are we in?”
The team exchanged curious looks but eventually someone had the courage to speak up and say “the perfume business”.
“Wrong” said the CEO. “We are in the dreams business. It’s not about what we make but how we make our customers feel when they wear our products. Focus on this ambition and we will be a great business. Focus on our products and I fear we will go out of business”.
Robert Baldock is MD of Clustre: The Innovation Brokers