Steve Jobs: Two Major Lessons for Business Leaders

RIP Steve - You brought beauty and wonder to our lives.As I stood outside the Apple store and looked at the letters, flowers and apples people had left there, I knew there had to be some important lessons we as business leaders should learn from the remarkable life of Steve Jobs.

A quote from this excellent New York Times article by James B. Stewart, which I read later that day, helped me to identify the takeaways:

"How did (Jobs) take a commodity and turn it into one of the most iconic and desirable objects on the planet? ‘ Steve Jobs and Apple never — ever — wanted to be a low-margin commodity producer,' Donald Norman, a former vice president for advanced technology at Apple and author of Living With Complexity, told me this week."

And so did this potent quote from Jobs himself, also from the Times article:

"In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains and the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service."

Following are two lessons for corporate leaders, inspired by Jobs' remarkable career and the two quotes.

LESSON #1. A truly customer-focused experience is about designing every aspect of the experience to be the finest possible. It’s not about settling for “acceptable/good enough” Jobs didn't let concerns about the cost of the product, for instance, block him from developing a completely differentiated customer experience. This resulted in a higher-priced product compared to the undifferentiated competition.

Today, many companies express concerns about “spending too much on customer service”.

If we fool ourselves into believing that  "good enough" is all we should invest in the service interaction, in product design, or anywhere else, we will only perpetuate mediocrity. Hiding behind the mantra of "cost containment”, or the myth that "customers won't notice”, will prevent you from delivering a competitively differentiating customer experience.

LESSON #2. Don’t treat the customer experience as a "quickie" transaction meant to drive short-term sales. Look at every interaction a customer has with your company as an opportunity to move beyond the transaction and build a relationship. Examine all the opportunities for delivering a customer experience exceptional enough to create not only a repeat customer, but also an advocate for your brand. Look closely at how you can better leverage:

arrow The power of positive word of mouth recommendations on purchase decisions.
arrow The moment of purchase.
arrow The interval between purchases, which may last for months or years. How do you provide customer appreciation and value throughout this phase?
arrow Customer service and technical requests.
arrow Renewal solicitations.
arrow All the other opportunities to demonstrate that the customer's relationship with your company is special.

THE MARKETING TAKEAWAY: If Steve Jobs could transform what others saw as a commodity-driven tool called a computer into a source of passion and pride for customers ... what can you do to make buyers of your product or service passionately proud?

If this can be done for a computer, why can’t it be done for an insurance product, which has more intrinsic personal value to the consumer, or a cellular service, or a health care product or service ... or your product or service?

This week, customers around the world left moving personal tributes to Steve Jobs at Apple stores that are, let us remember, the sales and service facilities of a very large global corporation. What company’s sales or service centers could claim anything remotely similar? Clearly, Apple products touched those customers at a deep emotional level.

The emotional connection Jobs created goes straight to the bottom line: Apple’s market capitalization is now $347.3 billion, and its profit margins are 33%.