I’m an IT guy, and in my presentation at the AIIM Conference last week, I began by saying that I didn’t think that the challenges facing business from things like BYOD, Big Data and the rapid pace of change are new ones. These challenges are just different. In fact, recent articles that I’ve read suggest that people were effectively using Big Data during WWII and that the Egyptians understood the value of data thousands of years ago – those ancient Egyptians are always surprising us. At the AIIM Conference, AIIM President, John Mancini talked about a body of work by Geoffrey Moore that characterizes the information industry as having two humps. On the left we have the complex systems that serve relatively few folks and on the right, the wild-west social stuff serving gazillions of people. I understand the message, but we’re also starting to realize that some businesses have to work both humps. This is where the non-technical me says “this isn’t news, this is just our industry starting to realize what other businesses already know” – at least some businesses.
I think about a store like Sarasnick’s Hardware in Bridgeville, PA. They have been in business since 1937, and I think that they have always worked both humps. They have a general purpose hardware store that lots of retail customers come to for the things they need, like a light bulb. They also serve commercial customers with very specific, sometimes complex needs, like a case of light bulbs that you and I would never use in our houses. I spoke to one of the owners of Sarasnick’s and he confirmed that the commercial customers are critical to his store’s success, and that they require a different approach to customer service. (Click to watch a cool little video from Sarasnick’s)
Staying in Bridgeville, about two blocks north of Sarasnick’s used to be a bowling alley called Bridgeville Recreation Center. I practically grew up in that place, as my dad managed it for years. Of course BRC offered general bowling to the public. They also offered league bowling, and they sponsored semi-professional men’s and women’s teams in what were known as “traveling leagues” who competed against other teams throughout the greater Pittsburgh area. Open bowling was clearly a right-hump industry. League bowling was closer to the left hump, but the traveling leagues were absolutely a left-hump operation.
South of both Sarasnick’s and BRC, was Norwood Catering service where I worked after I got my driver’s license. One of their customers in the 1970’s was the Gateway Clipper Fleet. In the 70’s, that “fleet” consisted of the Gateway Party Liner, the Gateway Clipper and the Good Ship Lollipop (seriously). The Lollipop ran children’s tours and charters (think birthday parties). The Clipper offered a series of ongoing tours of the three rivers and the Party Liner hosted nightly dinner dances, weddings and business events, all with food that was delivered by me for about 14 months. Tours, and dinner dances were public events; right hump endeavors. Weddings, charters and business events, were left hump activities with for more specific requirements, calling for more complex planning (although Norwood usually served the same food).
It seems strange that three small businesses, each in business over 50 years ago, understood market forces that are currently being revealed to the information management industry. I don’t think any of these businesses were being run by statisticians, physicists or behavioral scientists. What these guys knew, and what today’s information businesses seem like they are still trying to avoid learning, is that customer service drives success. The key difference between the left and right humps is the nature of the customers under the curve; if you want to succeed, you have to serve them all.
Some companies choose to not serve both groups. For example, I am a big D-I-Y project guy, and I have occasionally had to buy something at a plumbing supply house. If you can find one who will sell to you as an individual, don’t expect it to be a welcoming experience, and don’t expect much help. By the time you get to the counter, you had better know exactly what you want. If I don’t know exactly what I want, I start at a store like Sarasnick’s and most often, they can figure out what I need and place a special order. Here’s a tip if you want to be respected by this blog:
Do not pick the brain of the guy at the local hardware store and then go and place an order at Amazon or Home Depot – in my book, that’s stealing – there, I said it.
As the study shows, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer; you can’t serve every customer the same way. If you find your business model staring at those two humps of customers, figure out which hump is critical to your success, or figure out how to serve both groups equally well.