There are two basic reasons why companies fail: unwillingness to embrace the obvious changes of their day, and a smug rejection of customer feedback. Those two factors can be found in every company that once commanded its market, then lost the leadership spot: Ford, Motorola and IBM. Each thought it “knew what was best” for the consumer. And each was taught quite quickly that the customer is always right. It’s a lesson being learned by other industry leaders today – such as Barnes and Noble, and some of the biggest real estate brokers in the country. We call it the “Failure Mindset.”
Ford is the best historical example of the Failure Mindset: Where it once dominated the automobile industry, its “you can have any color you want, as long as it’s black,” mentality led it within a few short years to a second- and then third-tier spot in the business. Other companies followed the same path. Motorola once held the largest share of the cell phone market with its popular Razr phone; then slipped into obscurity after its “we’ll stick to this model” formula left it out of touch with increasingly savvy younger customers. And IBM’s story is legend: From global pacesetter to near-bankruptcy in one generation, the stories of how “the IBM way” tried to rewrite its customers’ businesses rather than support them are basic reading for how not to run a corporation in the modern economy.
One might think that with such clear examples over the last century that modern businesses would clearly understand and avoid the Failure Mindset. Wouldn’t a constant policy of innovation and customer responsiveness be the standard, not the exception, in the 21st century? Obviously not, especially in legacy industries like booksellers and real estate brokers.
Barnes and Noble is a case in point for the Failure Mindset. A simple anecdote explains it all. Yesterday I ventured into the bricks-and-mortar of the local B&N for the last time. Not just because I am a proficient consumer who does more than 50% of his shopping online already. But because the experience of the Failure Mindset was so pervasive that B&N might not even earn my online business in the future, either.
Browsing the bookstore on a chilly winter Sunday afternoon isn’t shopping; it’s a pass-time that used to involve sipping coffee while getting started on your new book. Except that I couldn’t find the book I wanted, because I had forgotten the author’s name. It was then that I encountered the Failure Mindset.
I expected to find no employees on the floor – razor-thin margins limiting staff these days. What I didn’t expect was a complete obliviousness to the modern consumer: There wasn’t a single computer anywhere I could use to search for the book I wished to purchase.
There were two computers on each floor, but both were unattended by staff. As a Gen X’er, I attempted to access them anyway, but they were blocked by passwords. After looking around in frustration for another machine, I got into the checkout line. When my turn came, I asked if there was a computer somewhere I could use to search whether my desired book was in stock and where it might be located.
That’s where I experienced the Failure Mindset full force. I was told that there were no computers for customers to use. I had to tell the staff what I was looking for and they could look it up for me. When I replied that there were no staff to ask on the floor, I was smugly told that I was talking to one now. When I noted that it seemed silly in this day and age not to have a computer for customers to use on their own, I was informed that it wasn’t “how we do it” at Barnes and Noble. So either tell the clerk what to search for me, or move out of the way for the next customer.
What made the Failure Mindset even more amazing was that – as I walked away, having refused to comply with the smugly unfriendly process – there was a Nook kiosk off to the left of the registers. The Nook is an e-book reader that lets consumers search and purchase electronic books and magazines anywhere using wireless technology. It’s so advanced that it’s better than the convenience of purchasing online. Instead of visiting the physical store or logging onto the internet from your home computer, consumers can search and purchase from anywhere with unlimited 3G cellular internet access. It’s the next generation of book consumption, powered by a friendly interface.
The Nook is not smug. And it’s not mired in “the way we have always done it.” The Nook is an example of the Success Mindset. And it was right there in the middle of the Barnes and Noble store.
Now I’ll admit that I didn’t purchase a Nook at that moment; I was too frustrated to think about giving Barnes and Noble any of my money. Yet I left the store wondering how it’s possible for a company to be so smart and dumb at the same time? There wasn’t a computer for customers to use – in this day and age? I had to tell a staff person what to search for me – like I was incapable of doing it myself? I had to wait in the checkout line – without anything to checkout – in order to talk to a cashier whose mindset was do it our way or move out of line?
Of course, this made me think of my own industry. Failure Mindset still occurs when consumers try to navigate the brokerage business – online or offline. We still have real estate websites that make customers register before letting they can search for homes. Agents smugly throw away online leads from customers who are “just looking for information.” Either make an appointment or contact me later when you’re ready. It’s still common practice to hold a bricks-and-mortar open houses on Sunday afternoons, a time totally inconvenient to busy Gen X and Gen Y consumers. Because we’ve always done it that way.
And then I heard a beep, as my smartphone alerted me to a new message on my Facebook page. It struck me that I could ask my friends for the name of the author of my book – and they’d readily, quickly and pleasantly reply – plus refer me to other books I might enjoy. I could have searched for my book’s author using the smartphone’s browser. I could even have ordered it – from Barnes & Noble’s online competitor who didn’t even have bricks-and-mortar stores or an eye-rolling staff member. It was encouraging to think that some companies had learned the lessons of the Failure Mindset, and were actively pursuing the opposite.
It seemed paradoxical that Barnes and Noble would have such a poorly engineered in person experience for customers, within sight of it’s modern, wireless, customer-driven always-ready-to-search-and-serve product. If I do order an e-book reader in the future, I’ll probably order it from online. After checking with my friends in my social network for feedback. And probably from a website with friend chat-based customer service if I have any questions.
E-readers could finally close the doors of every remaining brick-and-mortar bookstore forever. They are products built from a strategy that listens to customer feedback and designs an innovative experience geared to the way the customer wants it to happen, not the other way around. They are even better than internet ordering, because you don’t have to wait for delivery. Some people lament that e-readers will eliminate an entire industry of traditional book sales – including the experience of browsing the aisles and touching the books.
From what I experienced of the Barnes and Noble Failure Mindset, perhaps they should.