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Business to Consumer (B2C)

Steve Jobs: His Unique Customer Experience Strategy

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Steve Jobs: His Unique Customer Experience Strategy

Should we follow Steve Jobs’ example when it comes to the customer experience?

The answer is an unequivocal yes. But not for the reason you may think. Steve Jobs seemed to have an intuitive understanding that marketing, at its core, is saddled with the paradox that it is a consumer discipline that is inherently anti-consumer. The approach Steve Jobs insisted on at Apple resolves this paradox in a resolutely pro-consumer way by embracing the anti-consumer side of this equation, not by dodging it. Yet Steve Jobs’ approach to the customer experience is, perhaps, the one thing for which he is most misunderstood.

Marketing is practiced as a discipline that is meant to be “the voice of the consumer,” quote/unquote. The challenge, though, is that other practical marketing considerations are no less important, and these will often, if not always, push marketers in the other direction.

Chief among these anti-consumer considerations is the need for some degree of homogeny in production, distribution and service. If every product were completely customized, costs and delivery requirements would keep them beyond the means and reach of most consumers. Ideally, every product would be perfectly matched to the unique needs and preferences of each consumer.  But practical considerations require that marketers be less consumer-friendly than that, and usually a lot less.

For perspective, it is worth recalling that needs-based market segmentation is a relatively recent marketing innovation that was hotly debated throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and even fiercely resisted for many years by several big consumer-marketing companies. It is often forgotten that modern marketing, even in a digital age, is profitable only at scale, so a better matching of product benefits and designs to the needs of consumer segments has to be weighed against the resulting lower economies of scale in production, distribution, media buying, advertising and more. Marketing is a discipline of maximizing efficiencies as much as it is a discipline of being the voice of the consumer.

The other anti-consumer consideration at the core of marketing is one of control. Let’s be honest: To get consumers to buy, we use every trick in the book, including many that deliberately exploit flaws and weaknesses in the ways in which people make decisions. (Hence, the popularity of intellectual fads like behavioral economics.) Consumers know that the only rule that counts is “buyer beware,” so the paradox of control is no mystery. But it is anti-consumer in the sense that the bottom-line interests of marketers often entail working against the best interests of consumers.

Steve Jobs enforced end-to-end control of Apple products. Jobs sealed Apple computers so that hobbyists couldn’t modify them and Jobs refused to license Apple software to run on non-Apple hardware. End-to-end was Apple’s approach to everything, from the original Macintosh to iTunes to apps to Flash to the iCloud, just to mention a few. Steve Jobs ran Apple by the idea that the best customer experience arises from being anti-consumer about customization and control.

Now this is not to say that the secret to success is to be anti-consumer about customization and control. Rather, it is to remind us that customization and control are secondary. What comes first is the customer experience, whatever that means for customization and control. Steve Jobs didn’t care about customization and control per se. He cared about the customer experience, which led to the ways he handled customization and control, not the other way around.

Unfortunately, the business concepts that come and go as marketing fads and conference themes often treat notions like customization and control as if they are the endgame. They are not. We learn nothing from Steve Jobs about open versus closed models for our categories. His battles with Microsoft and Google were only incidentally about that. What Steve Jobs fought for, and what we should learn from him, is that first and foremost success is about the customer experience, even when that necessitates embracing the marketing paradox of being anti-consumer.

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