Don’t Listen To Your Sector: Be More Weird

Be_different___Smile_by_screamst

Had a bit of drama over the past week. I’ll recap it for you as quickly as possible – as most readers of this blog don’t work in the same sector as I do.

Essentially Mick Kent, my CEO, wrote a challenging piece setting out why we have embarked upon a different service vision. Bromford are celebrating 50 years in business – so you wouldn’t think it particularly controversial to reflect on the past and consider the future.

Not so. The piece sparked some astonishing responses – especially on social media. Many in the sector expressed derision and even outright contempt. How could one of their own say such things?

But experience suggests this is just a natural crowd reaction to someone stepping out of line and being different.

You’ll never see a sector – be it Housing, Care, Support or Health, drive innovation. It’s simply not in the interests of the majority to reward disruptive behaviour.

It’s one of the eternal challenges for industry bodies – they have to reflect the views of their average member. And the views of the average member are, by definition, average.

You’ll never find a sector that is wholly admirable either. Be it banking, retail, travel or charitable – you will find the good, the indifferent, and the bad.

And you’ll also find a few disruptors – pacesetters who are pushing forward with a bold new vision. Often that vision will be treated with initial scepticism – sometimes by customers as well as industry peers.

In the last month the 2013 UK Customer Experience Excellence Top 20 was announced. You’ll see that it’s made up of companies who have faced criticism precisely because they challenged the accepted order of things.

Let’s glance at the Top 10 :

10 – Waitrose – Broke out of their southeast heartland despite people saying, “It’ll never work in the north”.

9 – M+S – Launched Plan A (“because there is no Plan B”)  a programme to instil innovation across 81,000 employees and lose their old fashioned image.

8 – Ocado – A High St store “without any stores “ founded by three guys with no experience of retail. “A disaster waiting to happen” said critics.

7 – Lush – Showed cosmetics can be ethical and environmentally responsible, whist also being super indulgent and pleasurable. ” We hire for values , not skills”.

6 – M+S Simply Food – Darling of the middle classes opens branches in railway stations , airports and hospitals. Critics predict failure – “People will resist the idea of carrying high cost food shopping around with them.”

5 – Virgin Atlantic – Challenging the establishment, improving service and astounding its customers: “We’ve never been afraid to upset people”.

4- Amazon – From “destroyer of Book Shops” to “destroyer of the High Street”. Adored by their customers.

3 – First Direct – The only bank people love. Launched with two ad campaigns:  a negative one showing the everyday aspects of normal banking. A positive one showing how good First Direct would be. The banking sector was appalled. Customers applauded.

2 – QVC – Almost universally derided on its UK launch in 1993. Now a global leader in video and eCommerce retail. Just launched QVC Sprouts, a crowdsourced competition to search for the best up-and-coming entrepreneurs and new products

In first place? John Lewis.

A few years ago I was talking to John Lewis employees at a conference where they had been speaking. They told me that far from being lauded by their own sector they were often criticised. People said it was arrogant and pretentious they had their own language (colleagues as “Partners” for example). Their recruitment practices and culture had been described as “a cult”.

“People just think we are a bit weird,” they told me. “But we’re not bothered by what the industry thinks. Just the customers.”

I imagine the retail sector were cynical about the fuss around The Bear and The Hare , the Christmas advert by John Lewis . As was I.

Screenshot 2013-11-22 09.01.30

Nearly 8 million YouTube views. Number 1 in overall UK Customer Experience. Profits of 415 million.

A lesson for innovators – don’t listen to your sector: Be Different. Be More Weird.

2013 – Do we need a new operating system?

Windows 95

My first post of 2013 has been slightly delayed due to holiday. I love holidays. Not because they get me away from work but because it’s where I can put work into focus.  The further away I get from Bromford and the UK the greater clarity I get on the things that need to change. It’s a great way to put things into perspective and get inspiration. And you get a January tan.

So please forgive the holiday excesses of this post, which was written on a flight back from Singapore with a wine in one hand and an eye on the remake of Total Recall. (Which is absolutely appalling by the way, save yourself the time.) I’ve also blown my usual “Keep a post to 500 words rule”. Normal service will resume shortly.

Singapore is interesting. You will probably get more inspiration from 24 hours there than from any trade publication , sector conference, or benchmarking club you spend time on this year.  Singapore (where someone actually said to me “We solved homelessness and unemployment”) seems to run on a whole new operating system. A kind of iOS 6 to the UK’s Windows 95. The normal rules don’t seem to apply.

Flicking through Twitter whilst I was away it also struck me how much innovation is going on right now. The use of digital to bring together the disconnected. New services and initiatives in housing , health , financial literacy and job creation springing up on an almost daily basis. And these are not just being developed by a few enthusiasts but becoming mainstream provision.

In Africa. And Asia. And South America.

But not the UK.

The young and the hungry seem to be achieving things faster than we can.

I love the UK and I love the sector in which I work.

But is it time for a whole new operating system?  What our businesses do , and how that business is done, surely needs upgrading?  Because at the moment – they just can’t move fast enough.

Our existing OS is often run on Board Meetings and Business Plans and Budget Approvals and Risk Assessments – all things that are 20th Century constructs and need re-imagining.

So. Let’s make a start.

  In December I posted that 2012 was the year that the housing sector went social. By that I meant it had dipped its toes in the waters of new technologies and ways of communicating – particularly social media. And , all things considered, I think it made a pretty nifty start. But no-one in the sector has gone digital. New websites , Twitter accounts and fancy infographics certainly. All are more relevant and engaging ways of communicating.  But has anyone truly redesigned their business for the connected customer?

The big accepted issues in 2013 for the housing sector are welfare reform and the lack of affordable housing supply. However I don’t think that looking back in 20 years time we will agree on that.

2013 will be remembered as the year in which customers started leaving us behind. Operating faster than we can.

We are lucky. We have never lived in a time where our communities can become truly connected with each other and everything.  There are 5 million people living in social housing in the UK  and many more receive care and support services. Everyone of them will be able to connect with one another , lobby us for change , run our services , provide support for each other and create jobs that don’t exist.

The way our business operates can stand in the way of that.  Or we can step aside and facilitate the ascension of the connected customer.

I don’t underestimate the task ahead. It requires a huge mind-shift by organisations and stakeholders. Many have not considered the impact of the connected customer/tenant/user/patient. Some , dinosaur-like , are resisting adaptation and are soon to face their own personal Ice Age.

What sort of things could we be doing?

  • How about we give up our websites and make them open source to users? See if they could do a better job than us?  (I’m guessing they can)
  • What if we let communities design their own hubs – letting them join health , housing , and care in the way they would like to see them work? (Rather than how we think it should operate)
  • Why don’t we let tenants design and run a choice based lettings and transfer system that works? (enabling actual choice ,rather than an illusion of it, could be an early goal)
  • What if people could swap providers of services (support, work programme, care) and design their own as easily as I can edit my basket on Amazon? 

None of the above are particularly innovative. Certainly none are impossible. The only barriers to any of them happening are us. You and me.

This is my first post of 2013. It’s my personal resolution that by the end of the year we will have real examples of how we have used digital not just to engage users , but to fundamentally reshape what we do.

I’d love to hear what others think. Do let me know. And Happy New Year!