Geoff FitzGibbon has10 years leadership at CNIB in consumer marketing and operations. Diverse business experience. From General Management to new business start-ups in Healthcare, Telecommunications and Digital Imaging. Geoff brings a direct, cordial and flexible approach to new challenges. Retail, Marketing, B2B and B2C sales, exporting and international sourcing.

Jeff became a Boardroom Metrics Accomplished Executive in September 2010.

This is the first in a series I call “The Contrarian’s View”.

In today’s uncertain business world it can be comforting to latch on to whatever has least risk, which usually means what is familiar. While doing what works can be a strength – stick to what  we know – there is also a danger in relying on it too heavily. A sudden change in the economy or in consumer taste or the entry of new competition can make what we do today obsolete.

Let’s look at the question “What business are we in”?

We usually define what we do in terms of what we produce, our goods or services. I am going to suggest that this usual way in which we define our companies today can be a real pitfall, and can even blind-side us.

First, let’s look at a few examples of how defining business in this standard way can be a problem:

  • The oil and automobile companies in the US in the early part of the previous century viewed themselves as producing and selling petroleum products, and cars and trucks, respectively. Within these views, municipal transit was seen as a competitive threat. They missed the consumer shift to living in larger cities, where transit made sense, and so they missed the opportunity to profit from manufacturing streetcars and operating transit systems.
  • The same was true later in the 20th century, when the railroadsdid all they could to slow down the adoption of air travel rather than becoming part of it. Consumers quickly moved over to air as the preferred way to travel.
  • The Polaroid instant film company was a household name and produced significant profits every year from its founding in 1937 until it entered bankruptcy protection in 2001. But digital cameras came to fulfill the need for instantly captured events and memories and quickly out-paced Polaroid film sales. The company could not get past its self-definition as an instant film company until it was too late.
  • Finally, the companies which were most hurt by jet travel’s introduction – shipping lines and railway companies – almost without exception did not enter the market for either passenger jet travel or air-freight; it was left to FedEx, UPS, DHL and others to carve away a large part of their overall freight market.

All these companies failed to seize the opportunities of new tastes and technologies. They had boxed themselves into a corner by defining themselves in terms of what they did, not what the customer needed the products or services for.

So, what’s to do? Here are some examples of looking more broadly at today’s business and recasting in terms of consumer needs:

  • Although I make car parts for N. American manufacturers, I am really in the business of making mechanical, hydraulic, electronic and electrical sub-systems and sub-assemblies – for any customer that needs them.
  • I produce oil, but my business is supplying energy locally in forms that the customer wants.
  • I may run an airline or a railroad, but I am actually in the business of transporting mass numbers of people and things quickly and cheaply.
  • I manufacture microwave ovens, but my business is enabling consumers to prepare food very quickly and conveniently.
  • I print agenda books and day-planning texts today, but I really enable people to be organized and to track their activity for many purposes using whatever they need.

Defining what we do today in terms of customer needs can help us evolve our business for tomorrow and ensure we are not obsolete.