Archive for September, 2015|Monthly archive page

How great design can set you apart from competitors

If I could rank all of Steve Jobs’s business lessons, the importance of design in supporting business success would top my list.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Many global market leaders, and not just in fashion, electronics or luxury brands, drive growth by continuously enhancing product design. However, companies without a design heritage or capability can also use this strategy to improve revenue and brand image.

In a simplified process, designers working in collaboration with product managers and engineers take creative ideas and marry them with a customer’s requirements and the company’s goals. The integration of this effort hopefully leads to the creation of an aesthetically pleasing, functional and profitable product. Design is the sum total of the properties of a product or service made up of the form (i.e., the aesthetics around look, feel, sounds etc.) and the function (i.e., the practical benefits delivered). Good design can help a company create or dominate a category (think iPhone); poor design can kill a brand (remember the Edsel).

Design isn’t just the purview of high-end, iconic consumer brands such as Apple, Louis Vuitton, Nike, and Bang & Olufsen. Some B2B manufacturers such as IBM (laptops), Herman Miller (office chairs) and Olivetti (calculators) have used product design leaders to dominate their categories.

Then there’s successful and well-designed brands including IKEA, Samsung and Canada’s Umbria, which have proven neither price nor a Paris, New York or Milan address are required for using design competencies as a key differentiator.

Nor do you need a large investment or a creative studio to compete on design. Take, for example, the experience of one of my clients — a manufacturer of high performance automation systems. The company, challenged to build market share without resorting to price discounting, tweaked its product designs and saw an immediate boost to revenue and brand image. Research showed buyers perceived little difference between products (not unexpected since the systems looked remarkably similar) despite the fact that system performance and warranties varied significantly. Not surprisingly, pricing was their key purchase driver. To stand out, the company had to leverage other attributes.

Management agreed to run an experiment: redesign its product demo to make it visually appealing and high end, then gauge its success through prospect and client feedback. This involved some simple design changes — repainting certain components, enclosing messy cable assemblies and enhancing the documentation and packaging. The response from the sales team and prospects was overwhelming. Sales closing rates and perceived product value jumped. Based on these results, the CEO decided to redesign the entire lineup.

Leveraging design is not for the impatient, undisciplined or risk adverse. World-class firms build internal competencies and ensure they become part of their cultural DNA.

Three best practices to achieve this are:

Learn Acquire a deep and multifaceted understanding of your customers’ needs (including sub-conscious drivers of their behaviour), as well as an understanding of emerging trends, such as mobile computing. Be mindful of Sony founder Akio Morita’s observation that consumers often fail to see the appeal of a breakthrough product on first hearing about it (the Walkman in this case). Keep the creative juices flowing by being plugged in to what is happening in complementary industries and related fields such as technology, nature, entertainment and fashion.

Build Assemble the right ingredients — talent, tools and processes — then give them the freedom to follow a vision consistent with the company’s goals. Collaboration is essential; designers should spend much of their time working directly with the product development and operational groups as well as external partners. Employing the right knowledge management systems and metrics will help ensure design excellence is institutionalized, cultivated and effectively managed long term.

Persevere Making these changes stick requires strong leadership, the pull of motivational values and goals and perseverance, not to mention a re-balancing of priorities. Internal alignment won’t always be easy especially when you are asking engineers and production managers to collaborate with designers. Finally, you need to be realistic. Not every new design, no matter how elegant, will be a hit with customers.

Mitchell Osak is managing director, strategic advisory services at Grant Thornton LLP. He can be reached at Mitchell.Osak@ca.gt.com Follow him at Twitter.com/MitchellOsak

Rebooting wealth management firms

It’s never been tougher to be a wealth manager. A significant growth in assets under management over the past seven years (last week’s correction notwithstanding) has not translated into suitable top and bottom line growth. Many industry observers blame this on structural challenges that belie an easy fix and are not going away in the short term. To reboot profitability and position their firms for growth, wealth managers should go back to the fundamentals and re-examine where and how they compete.

Every company is experiencing strong headwinds including market uncertainty, insufficient scale, poor brand differentiation, fee compression, and rising costs (for regulatory compliance, information technology, etc.). On the horizon is another threat, technology-based “robo-advisers,” such as Toronto-based startup Wealthsimple, which use an automated platform to target specific, tech-savvy segments with a focused value proposition and lower fees.

It is the three “M” wealth management firms — mid-sized, me-too and middling — that face the greatest business risk. They can no longer be all things to all clients or get by merely on the strength of personal relationships. Their best approach would be to go back the fundamentals: re-examine the segments they pursue, choose the best value proposition for the target client and build the capabilities needed to deliver it. While each firm will define their own approach, they may want to consider two strategic opportunities:

The gender gap Most wealth management firms lack the practices, understanding and tools to satisfy and address one large but relatively untapped segment, women. Women create, control and influence a huge amount of wealth — upward of 39 per cent of U.S investible assets, according to research from the Center for Talent Innovation.

The research found that 47 per cent of U.S. female wealth creators (53 per cent globally) and a shocking 75 per cent of women under age 40 do not have a financial adviser. Among the U.S. women that do have an adviser, 44 per cent report they are not understood by their adviser. There is no reason to believe that Canadian female clients are managed or treated any better than their U.S. or global counterparts.

Wealth managers need to gain a deeper understanding of women investors’ needs, requirements and fears using quantitative and qualitative research (advanced tools like ethnography can help here). Insights and lessons can be gleaned from industries such as automobile and consumer electronics that have pioneered female-friendly marketing and product design. Tactics could include: crafting more gender-neutral messages and imagery, employing principles of behavioural finance to remove hidden bias, training advisers in gender-smarts and creating a more collaborative and inclusive client experience.
To best capitalize on this opportunity, consider customizing products and services to suit women, including creating a risk profile that is markedly different (according to a study from consultants BCG) from one created for a man.

“We discovered early on our female clients have unique needs. They look for more collaborative, education-focused advisers with a holistic, long-term approach to financial planning,” said Jennifer Boynton, an investment counsel at Toronto-based RealGrowth, which is growing by focusing on addressing the needs of female clients. “Addressing these needs, while still meeting their investment targets, has enabled us to consistently exceed acquisition, retention, and most importantly, client satisfaction goals,” she said.

Build digital capability Given the wide range of consumer activities that can be done on a smartphone or desktop, it’s surprising that digitization has advanced so slowly in this space. While incorporating new technologies can be difficult, it no longer can be put off. Doing so will help you remain relevant and attract key segments such as high income digital natives or millennials who are very comfortable performing day-to-day activities online.

Furthermore, going digital is vital for streamlining back-office operations, enhancing reporting and improving data and analytics capabilities.

Digital tools can provide clients with mobile, real-time and user-friendly views of their portfolio (including value, costs, transactions) along with self-serve options for research, recommendations, buy/sell and support. Advanced data analytics can be leveraged to proactively tailor your investment advice and content based on each client’s profile, or support internal investment decisions. Finally, many wealth managers can make better use of social media networks to disseminate information, build moderated communities of interest (say around tax planning) and gauge investor sentiment and needs.

When it comes to realizing the digital dividend, the secret is to understand your client’s needs, and build back from there. That requires companies to create a 360 degree review of each client’s assets, requirements and behaviour patterns, an understanding of existing processes and a willingness to re-engineer the client-experience model (including practices, culture and policies), before exploring technology solutions.