How does an individual use a personal computer? Barring edge cases, like using niche applications for business purposes, we can generalize it to editing and storing documents, pictures, music and other files, managing appointments and tasks, and doing a whole bunch of things on Internet like checking emails, social networking, surfing, getting news and so on. These uses of a personal computer makes it such a formidable force, both at home and work. The base of a personal computer is an operating system (like Windows, Linux, Mac OS) making it the platform of the computing world.
Now consider a web browser such as the Internet Explorer or Firefox. What can a web browser do? It can connect a personal computer to the grid of servers out there somewhere in the cloud. All you need is this browser and an Internet connection. If this grid of servers can store your documents, pictures, music and so on, and the browser can provide you with tools to create and edit these items, manage your calendar and let you use the Internet as usual, your need of owning a powerful computer and cutting edge operating system diminishes significantly. The platform now changes from a personal computer to an Internet browser running on this personal computer.
When the required platform changes from an operating system to a web browser, what happens? You stop looking for the latest operating system for your personal computer and start marching towards the latest and most efficient web browser. No doubt you will still need a personal computer, but you might not need to update it every three years to stay in sync with the doubling computing power. This challenge posed by a web browser to the operation system is a case of challenging an existing platform not with a better platform, but with a different platform.
I took a flight from New York City to Seattle this week. The unexpected turn of events made me realize the importance of customer service yet again.
To start with, the Delta airlines flight took eleven hours to reach Seattle. Yes, we spent eleven hours sitting in the plane…normally it is between six to seven hours. Out of these eleven hours, four hours were spent standing and taxing at the JFK airport, during which the air conditioner was turned-off and turned-on (on passengers’ request) a few times.
As you might know, Delta like many other airlines do not serve food in the main cabin, they sell it. As per their estimates of how many passengers normally buy food in a six hour flight, they have food for a some percentage of the attendance. So despite of standing at the door for about a couple of hours with 200 passengers in the plane, they did not take the pain of revising these estimates. Result being about half of the passengers asked to spend eleven hours on peanuts (they are complimentary!)
Well you can say, it was all circumstantial and no big deal (seriously, four hours more in a plane and no food for eleven hours is not that big of a deal). But to top it all off, there was a team of unapologetic crew. The crew right from the captain to the flight attendants acted very casually about the delay and food shortage without apologizing even once during the entire thing. The flight captain was quick to blame the delays on the JFK staff and flight attendants pointed to their estimates for shortage of food.
The simple thing that they did not get is that the customer sitting in the plane had an expectation from them, not from the JFK staff and certainly not from some guess work of how many people will be hungry. The easy thing would have been to not board the flight knowing that you are going to stand at the gate for two hours. Yet easier, load the plane with enough food after learning that the flight is going to take at least ten hours to reach the destination. and easiest of all, say the passengers who “paid” to travel with them “sorry” about the mess.
The purpose of this post is not to do Delta bashing over the bad experience I had, but I am pretty sure, or let me say I hope, that the customer service they provided their passengers here could not have been any worse.
Gateway to a personal computer: Windows.
Gateway to the Internet: Google.
Gateway to your social world: Facebook.
What we are talking about is a business that provides a single resort to meet (most of) your needs in a particular arena. I would define a gateway business as one that encompasses a platform that can host applications to fulfill ones needs in that world.
How to develop a successful gateway business? Develop the world inside the gates. Visualize four gates in front of you. You get a chance to peep through each one of these gates to see what’s on the other side. Which gate will you go through? The gate across which you will find the most of what you are looking for. In a gateway business, sometimes you don’t have to be the best, but have to provide an ecosystem that delivers the customers best of what they are looking for, or in other words, you need to be the best platform out there. For example, you can debate that Windows is not the best operating system out there, but it is the one which supports the most applications providing majority of people what they want from their personal computer, making it the best platform for personal computers in the market.
Interesting thing to note here is none of these platforms we consider to be iconic gateway businesses were the first in the field. Windows was not the first operating system, Google was not the first search engine and Facebook was not the first social networking site. They all had someone before them that were not able to develop a formidable platform. This brings up two important points. First, a gateway business, though considered to be less vulnerable have its own vulnerabilities and is not indispensable. If you have a gateway business, better remain on your toes and keep evolving. Second, if you are planning to start a gateway business, and you think you can do better than what’s out there, go for it. Just something else already dominating the market is not a barrier enough to abandon the plans.
I recently went shopping for a pair of shoes online. A couple of things that locked me down to Zappos.com were:
- Peace of mind: For any pair of shoes you buy, Zappos.com covers “two way” shipping, i.e. you can return them for free if you don’t like the shoes or if they don’t fit well. People are hesitant in buying shoes and likes online because they are not sure if they will find them comfortable after wearing. Zappos.com got that covered.
- The long tail: You will be wow-ed seeing the variety of apparels you will find at Zappos.com. I was able to find the shoes of the brand I wanted and in my price range somewhere in their long tail.
Both these points place Zappos.com out of the lot. Two way shipping is like an insurance and Zappos.com got it right. People are more comfortable shopping there because they know they won’t regret buying shoes online. Similarly getting to choose from (literally) thousands of options is something you cannot get in a physical store (and at least at this time not at any other online store), making it another differentiating factor.
These differentiations drew me to Zappos.com, but then I received this email from their Customer Loyalty Team (normally you get one from the shipping department when the order is shipped):
Dear Aditya Ghuwalewala,
Although you originally ordered Standard (4 to 5 business days) shipping and handling, we have given your order special priority processing in our warehouse and are upgrading the shipping and delivery time frame for
Your order will ship out Monday, July 14th 2008 and be given a special
priority shipping status so that you can receive your order even faster than we originally promised!
Please note that this is being done at no additional cost to you. It is simply our way of saying thank you for being our customer.
The order above has already been packed and we will be emailing you your tracking number later today, when our computer systems are finished processing all of today’s transactions.
We are constantly striving to improve our service. If there is anything that we can do to help improve your experience, please don’t hesitate to let us know. We like to think of ourselves as a service company that happens to sell shoes, clothing, and a whole bunch of other stuff!
If you’ve enjoyed your experience with us, please tell your friends and family about Zappos.com!
Zappos.com Customer Loyalty Team
I am a pretty savvy web shopper, but it’s not always I get such an email. This email is a simple way of telling the customers that we go an extra mile to make you happy. When you can find the same pair of shoes at less than 5% price differential at more than hundred online stores, such an experience worth talking about can make all the difference!
Easter eggs can be a great tool to market your product. I believe it can help marketers in a couple of unique ways. First, it can provide you a way to give exclusive information about something in the product to a select group of mavens, hence increasing their loyalty towards your brand. Second, it can get the customers talking about your product. A word of mouth buzz started by mavens could be more powerful than any advertising you do for the product.
Here’s an example of how you can use Easter eggs: put a feature in your online software product or service that can be discovered by pressing a certain combination of keyboard keys. Even better, put a product feature that is suggested by the community as an Easter egg in early beta stage of the feature development. Leak information to the mavens on how to discover the feature and let them test it. Mavens will love to talk about it generating a great positive wave for the product in the community. Get feedback from the community and keep improving the feature till you reach a point where the feature is ready to be added to the core (non Easter egg) of the product. It is important to acknowledge contribution of the community members with respect to the feature. This will make them proud of it and encourage future community participation.
The entire objective is to give something differentiable enough for the community to talk about and discuss. In the market, there is always something out there that is as good as, if not better than, your product. What you need is a way to differentiate your offering from the others…and Easter eggs, if used in the right way, is one way to attain this objective.