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Take Me to the Moon: 
It’s What Your Customers Want 

By Lior Arussy

The New York Times recently reported that over 13,000 reservations have been made for Virgin Galactic flights, scheduled to start in 2007. For those of you who are not familiar with Virgin Galactic, it is Richard Branson’s latest endeavor offering flights into space.   Virgin Galactic’s 3-hour flight sells for the whopping price of $200,000 per seat. Evidently, price is not a deterrent. To top it off, customers are willing to wait several years for this one-of-a-kind experience.

When I read this, I felt that it reinforced what everyone knows, but which average companies, despite their protestations to the contrary, do not deliver. Customer tastes as well as their definition of excitement are moving targets.   What’s hot today may be old news tomorrow. What was fun last summer may be passť this June.

Customer experiences must be fresh and exciting each and every time. A 1999 experience is a commodity at this point. The example above demonstrates that customers will pay for great experiences ($200,000 for 3 hours flight! And they said the airline industry is suffering…). All that passengers ask is that the experience be fresh and relevant.

Unfortunately, companies continue to devalue their experiences and offer less to customers while attempting to charge more – all this in the name of consistency and cost-reduction. For customers on the receiving end, it is a contradictory proposition, which they resist.   Customers can quickly spot commoditized products and services and respond by looking for versions offering the best deal for them. Consistency is simply not good enough. Consistency leads to boredom which leads customers to look elsewhere.

If Richard Branson were the average corporate leader, Virgin Atlantic Airways’ success would have left him feeling quite satisfied (and complacent). However, like that other upstart, Jet Blue, Branson’s airline is aggressive about redefining air travel and as a result, both have earned strong customer loyalty.

Virgin is the envy of many others. Generous value offerings like free massages in Upper Class (Business Class), a greater selection of entertainment, and pampering services in their club house at Heathrow airport have earned them huge customer loyalty. But rather than stop there, Sir Branson has taken the next leap by, quite literally, taking his customers to the moon. Rather than incremental improvements in things like flight schedules or new city stops, he has taken a dramatic leap by focusing on the next frontier.

So why aren’t other companies doing the same thing? The answer can be summed up in two words: “risk” and “leadership”.

Risk tolerance at companies is shrinking as they become more risk averse. The larger the company, the less risk it is willing to take. Complacency sneaks in once the first, successful product is realized, and it stays there. Managers mistakenly assume that their initial success will last forever. The truth isn’t discovered until they observe that their lost market share and leadership position has moved to the smaller, more risk-oriented, players.

There is plenty of talk these days in corporate offices about growth and innovation. The pendulum has shifted from efficiency and cost reduction programs to growth and innovation. Growth and innovation, however, are tied to higher levels of risk tolerance and as well all know, the greater the risk, the greater the breakthrough.    But most companies do not want to assume such risk. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” evidently, does not apply to them.   

The problem however is not just the formal attitude toward risk. It is also the culture the feeds it. To assume risk you need a person to take it on. Corporate leadership is reluctant to take the risk that will drive “the next big thing.”  They have too much vested to make a move that may jeopardize their next promotion or perhaps even their job.   The reason for this reluctance has to do with the way corporations treat mistakes. There is a fine line between success and failure as both require a fair amount of good intentions and investment of resources, making them equally important to any company. As to the rewards, success is naturally rewarded whereas a demotion or dismissal may come with failure.

Until the formal approach and the acceptance towards risk changes, companies have no hope for developing breakthrough innovations that will deliver value to their customers.  As long as companies continue to recognize and idolize success and dismiss failure (and sometimes the people who fail) employees will take the road most traveled rather than the road less traveled. They simply will not be able to justify the tremendous personal and professional risk required.

There is a certain element of paranoia as well as fun in Richard Branson’s constant innovation. He views the world as a playground for invention and improved value; and than charges handsomely for it. There are no secrets to his approach, just a willingness to take risks, make change and challenge the establishment. Sir Branson has the ability to laugh at himself and is willing to fail in order to succeed. In short, he is willing to take his customers to the moon. Are you?

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