We could get into the weeds on whether the pedestal that we put tech companies on is right or justified but that doesn’t change a simple fact: these guys have a lock on how to get people to give them their hard earned money in exchange for whatever they’re selling on a given day. So as a small business owner, how can we emulate just a little fraction of this success for our much more modest community of customers?

What follows is a kind of thought experiment where we explore the principles that have shown such promise for the leaders of the tech sector.


1. Customers don’t always know what they want

Let’s get this one out the way early because it’s not a particularly new one. The simple fact is that if you’re waiting for people to ask for an innovation then you’ll be waiting a very long time. You’ve probably heard the quote before from Henry Ford about the faster horse (if not, give it a Google 😉). Even with the average person’s tech literacy reaching new heights all the time, we can still assume that people don’t really take the time to think about their day-to-day problems with a critical lens.

There’s no greater illustration of this than the standard adoption curve (pictured below courtesy of Appcues.com). It’s one of those weird-but-true human behaviour things that just keeps being proven right time and time again. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, there will be some level of alignment with this distribution across your customer base.

The Product Adoption Curve

That top two(ish) percent are your innovators. They will be sold on whatever new-fangled thing you’re doing simply because it’s new. They get a rush from being on the forefront of innovation and they embrace the potential bugs and hiccups, seeing it as all a part of the experience. Your next 15%, the early adopters, might need a bigger nudge than the innovators, but they’ll be the ones who you need on board to make a new idea fly. The rest will take their sweet time to different extents – right through to the laggards who see holding on to the ‘old ways’ as a badge of honour.

Just look at the apprehension that is being felt by the vast majority of your customers. Listening to what your customers want is absolutely crucial. That said, if you are only listening to the majority then, on balance, you’re unlikely to be mining new, innovative ways of doing things. The tech industry is leading the world in innovation because they’re listening to the folks who want new stuff. The result is a cascading uptake of the new normal as the innovators influence the early adopters, the early adopters influence the early majority and so on.

In short, if you wait for your customers to ask for something new, chances are you’re already playing catchup. If it’s common enough for you to hear it from multiple customers, then it’s already reaching that early to late majority. You know your business better than anyone – so trust your gut and listen to that top 2% when it comes to change.


2. Innovation needs to be visible

Whatever it looks like in practice, you need to make sure your innovative efforts are visible to your customers if you want to use it to grow your business. The age of “build it and they will come” died along with flip phones and tape decks. If you’re doing something a bit different, tell people about it! So many businesses fall short of their goals because they don’t have a solid plan for communicating their achievements to the world.

Apple was one of the first to really do a fantastic job of this with their World Wide Developers Conference. This is a standout model for a couple of reasons. First, tying back to point number one above, it’s pitched at developers who are tech savvy and interested in developing apps and software for Apple devices. To put it another way, this conference is pitched at Apple’s 2%. They’re not trying to appeal to their whole audience – just the ones who are their biggest advocates and who want the latest and greatest as soon as possible.

Secondly, they’re making their new features larger than life by turning what could have been a simple email announcement or ad campaign into a spectacle. What’s more, the spectacle is centred around education. They have thousands of people eagerly tuning in to not only be sold on the benefits of their latest products, but they’re building loyalty and connection with their business by educating these innovators on how to best use the new thing. The result? A highly engaged group of people who will then go out an evangelise about Apple’s stuff. And here’s the kicker – they’re doing all the selling on Apple’s behalf for FREE!

Okay, so maybe you’re not going to host a big conference for your local business, but you can apply the same principles. When you consider the scale and the end result of the above event, does a wine and cheese night really seem that outrageous to talk about your new home delivery service? Telling people about your hard work is just as important as the work itself and the more you can incentivise your customers to listen, the better.


3. Experience is everything

It should be pretty self-evident from point two that making a great experience plays a big role in building a successful and innovative business, but let’s dive into that a little deeper. Far more important than the nuts and bolts of popular technology is the experience that it facilitates. It’s crucial that you give some thought to how people will interact with your business’ offering rather than focusing just on the core product or service.

Tesla is a great example of this with their electric vehicles. They’ve got a significant focus on creating a vehicle that feels futuristic. From the design, the security features like keyless and even handle-less entry, through to simple solutions to common problems such as dog mode. There are a whole bunch of electric cars out there now, but Tesla stays a cut above by putting effort into the experience of driving and owning one of their vehicles.

This has been the hallmark of successful businesses, big and small, for a very long time. Just think of Harrods, the iconic department store or even McDonalds with its trademark sticky floors and questionable ball pit. The point is that what you are selling matters a lot less than how you craft the experience for your customers. Make it memorable and aligned with what your customers want and you’ll be onto a long term winner for sure.


4. Build an emotional connection with your customers

The dream state for most businesses is for people to instinctively choose them over other brands, simple because it feels right. The marketer in me would call this “heuristic decision-making factors.” This described all the reasons that people buy stuff which have little or nothing to do with the product’s features or benefits.

This phenomenon is extremely common when it comes to tech, largely because consumers have relatively little knowledge about how their techy gadgets work. Sure, we could all be Googling what a retina display really is, or comparing benchmark performance scores for laptop processors – and some customers will do exactly that. More likely though, people fall back on non-factual information to make their decisions.

This is why you will get people who have their favourite brand of smartphone and they stick with it until they die (or the company goes out of business). This can also happen at the other end of the spectrum, where people will refuse to buy a specific brand because they perceive it as overpriced, or poor quality, even if the product they end up with is technologically inferior.

If you can tap into these emotional drivers for your customers then you’ll be in a position to create significant upside for your business. If you’re a service provider, you can easily insert little tweaks to make that experience better for your clients. In a retail context, you’re unlikely to have a whole lot of control over the products themselves. Instead, your focus can be on the experience associated with accessing your products.

The key is to find the levers which will get people feeling a strong (and ideally positive) emotion. Maybe it’s a little gift with each sale, or a delightful origami business card. The what will depend on your customers but the goal is the same: create an emotional tie to your business that draws your customers back without them even thinking about it.

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5. Embrace simplicity

There’s a fantastic principle that we can overlay on that adoption curve above to understand why simplicity is a good thing in business. There are certainly a portion of your customers who love the nitty gritty details and the nuance of things. These are the innovators, that top 2%. If you’re in a super high value industry maybe that’s plenty to sustain your business. In reality, most businesses need to reach a bigger proportion of the population to achieve sustainable revenue and so forth.

If you look at the household names of the tech industry you might notice a common thread of ever-increasing capability with ever decreasing complexity. Most people want products that just work without a bunch of troubleshooting and prerequisite knowledge. The same can be said of any consumer facing industry these days – most people just want to know what will work to fix whatever problem they have.

A good, old fashioned Occam’s Razor approach works well when you’re looking at your own business. In pharmacy, for example, there’s a lot of complexity that you can’t simply ignore or simplify without potential ramifications. In this situation it’s useful to start with all of the information about a product or service and work backwards, removing anything that isn’t essential. Perhaps you could end with a simple five step questionnaire to help people work out which supplements they need, or some product recommendations based on the categories your customers fall into. There’s always value to be added by making it as simple as possible to interact with your business.


6. Critics will always be the loudest voice

One of the drawbacks to attempting to do something a little differently is that you will attract the ire of folks who disagree with what you’re doing. This happens all the time in the tech industry which is largely divided into camps who support certain brands or products over others. Game consoles are a great example. All of the facets discussed above come into play: the simplicity of a console vs the customisation of PC gaming, the emotional connection with a certain controller over another, even though the technical specs of a gaming console never seem to be part of the discussion.

Every brand in the gaming space has people who love them and people who believe they are objectively terrible. Of course, they’re all right and they’re all wrong – and those who don’t like a brand, whatever their rationale, simply aren’t likely to become a customer. It would be misguided to listen to the complaints of people in the opposing camp too closely, right? If PlayStation suddenly changed their controller to mimic the Xbox, they would likely lose a significant bunch of their loyal customers and would be very unlikely to gain many diehard Xbox fans.

It seems obvious in this light, right? Yet so many businesses live or die on the opinions of people who will never be customers. This is a delicate line to tread because you want to ensure you’re not leaving potential customers feeling isolated and unheard. That being said, business will always be a game of prioritisation. The trick is to develop a metric by which to measure the feedback you’re receiving to decide if it is actionable.

The best way to do this is to understand who your best customers are, in terms of demographics, preferences, lifestyle factors and so forth. Once you know which factors correlate with high value, long term customers, try listen to feedback only from people who match those criteria. Spending all your time pandering to customers who don’t really want you to change is a good way to waste a lot of time and money. Instead, focus your energy on the people who you have a good chance of persuading one way or another and listen to them intently.


Some final thoughts

When it comes down to it, businesses are all pretty similar. The tech industry is a great yardstick of high-profile companies engaging in best practice approaches to growth and retention. It’s not about the tech itself – it’s about the principles of innovation and customer centricity. The best part? You don’t need to be a hacker or an engineer or even wear a turtle-neck to bring these principles into your own business. Take the things that you see happening in companies who inspire you and think about how you can take the essence of that success and apply it to your day-to-day. It’s one of the best ways to innovate and break away from the way things have always been.

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