At work, get your calories by feeding on Customer Delight.

It has taken me a while, and several mistakes, to fully imbibe and crystallize the difference between ‘junk’ work and ‘real’ work. I guess I needed to get away from the noise and work on a small project with someone who is not corrupted by the latest trends I see everywhere such as “we’re a startup” or “it is fashionable to call oneself an entrepreneur”.

My past is guilty of feeding my work with words such as “projections”, “venture capital”, “market sizing”, “cofounders”, “salaries”, “opportunity cost, “equity”, “dilution” “networking”, “startup events”, “advisors”, and so on. I consider these nothing more than distractions at work, short-lived and harmful, as they take your eyes off the most important and long-term factor for impact – did you figure out a way of offering and sustaining supreme Customer Delight?

Delight is a hard goal, especially with consumers. Harder than spreading awareness, harder than beating competitors with price or benefits, and harder than raising capital. Consumer behavior is complex – defies trends, defies logic, and yet when the magic happens for a certain product, it seems perfectly natural. But despite these challenges, the real monks of the delight-focused world, spend every minute of their day meditating on every need, every emotion, every twitch that a consumer feels, to get clues to solve this mystery.

Let’s  forget about products and companies for a minute; consider a simple policy making scenario – offering food subsidies to poor people who eat less than 3 meals a day. Recent research from MIT’s Poverty Action Lab concluded that such subsidies have the opposite effect.   For example, the government subsidizes rice and wheat to ensure people can eat 3 meals and get enough calories. However, what actually happens is that people feel richer since grains now cost less, and invest the extra savings in meat and fish, and effectively eat fewer calories per day. Even among the poorest in the world, the pattern is the same – poor people prefer spending any extra savings on better tasting and more expensive calories. Tasty expensive food with more variety equals Delight, even if the feeling is momentary, and even it means eating one less meal everyday. Thus policy makers fail to create impact by ignoring Delight.

My earlier e-commerce venture thrived on the fact that once a customer joined the service, he never left, and was delighted to share his membership with others. Markets such as e-commerce, search, entertainment, retail, hospitality, food, and travel are examples of markets where top lines of companies thrive entirely on sustaining Customer Delight. Even the booming IT industry cannot escape worrying about it. Top providers are desperately chasing Delight to prevent “engineer man-hours” from becoming a commodity traded only on price.

Unknowingly entrepreneurs can find themselves in markets where it’s extremely difficult to provide Delight. I’ve found this to be true in the  “Languages” market. Language is a subjective skill, often impossible to personalize to individual usage and learning.  Whether you try to teach a language, represent a language digitally, or just translate to a language, you will always find that your solution is sub-optimal in different ways for different people. That’s not Delight.

According to one statistic, you’re not providing enough delight, unless 40% of your existing customers passionately claim that “they will miss you” if you cease to exist. This happens when we assume that ‘consumer need’ will dictate behavior, and eventually imply ‘consumer delight’. I made this error in a recent experiment where I underestimated the force of human procrastination (referred to as time-inconsistency phenomenon by behavioral economists). The magnitude of this problem was obvious only after we had 1-on-1 conversations with every person who had signed-up but had not paid.

As long as you’re asking the right questions, you will eventually find an answer or realize that you need to do switch tracks. Here are a few simple ways to speed things up so you can “fail fast, fail often” until you succeed.

  • Explore lateral markets and ideas, irrespective of their direct correlation to your product, to help develop a broad base of ideas for the customer you’re serving
  • Explore applicable frameworks in ‘consumer behavior’ or ‘behavioral economics’ along with experiments conducted on similar set of consumers in your geography or in other locations around the world.
  • Make a list of purely creative or creation-driven people (not necessarily business/startup people) in your life and pick their brains as often as possible. Even teenagers or senior citizens can be included in this list. Avoid typical “networking”.
  • Try verbalizing your thoughts on a daily basis with people who respect your enthusiasm but not necessarily agree with your action plan. Just the act of talking makes you aware of how you sound to someone who is not inside your brain. The non-verbal expressions and verbal reactions you get are enough to make you rethink and revise.
  • Don’t avoid calling customers over the phone.  If they have given you their number on your website or in person, you should use it. This will help you figure out if their reason to buy/avoid your product is an exceptional case which may not be repeatable with other customers.
  • Approach a problem with the mindset of an experiment and not that of a “venture” or a “business”.  That will ensure you focus on the right assumptions and prevent suffering from “short-term” or “monetization” biases.

It doesn’t matter whether you work for yourself or for someone else, or even whether you’re in the social sector. If you measure your work based on its impact, you cannot afford to take your eyes off Customer Delight. Everything else can wait.

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