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Strategies: focus on the customer and make sure you have the next play

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As I watch various series about office politics, it makes me wonder who really thinks this way. Who really thinks about destroying a competitor or a company or a colleague? I guess many of us do. But, do you do it in a collegial way? For example, if Jane is likely to be the next CEO, should John stab her in the back?

The reason I think about this is that strategies have to be formed in advance. If you are going to trip over Jane or John, you need a strategy. The thing is that strategies cannot ever be formed to go from A to B. They need to be formed from A to B to C to D. When Jane or John respond to B, you launch C and have D ready for the next big move.

This is my favourite aspect of being a strategist. When you sit and think about your next move, like a chess grandmaster, you need to think about the next five or six moves after. Strategies are not formed on the basis of doing A. It’s A through Z.

My favourite example of this was in the 1990s when Tesco launched their online service strategy. Tim Mason, former CMO of Tesco, presented how this played out before me as a keynote at a conference and his presentation has stayed with me to this day.

The gist of his keynote was that Tesco launched an online grocery store with delivery. Today, that’s not such an amazing thing. In the 1990s, it was visionary and far-sighted. But, more than this, the strategy then pivoted around hypermarkets and corner stores called Tesco Express. What became clear during his presentation was that Tesco had a step ladder to success, with each step sucker-punching their competitors and creating more market share for the store which, at the time, was the underdog.

[Tim] Mason is the marketing legend who spent half a lifetime driving Tesco Clubcard,, Tesco Finest and Tesco Express, all of which (and more) propelled Tesco to a record market share of over 31%.

What I loved about this story is that every move had a move ahead and, when you think about any strategist, this is obvious isn’t it? You do not play chess, thinking purely about the next move. You play chess thinking about the move two, three, four or more steps ahead. In business, you have to do the same. Don’t just launch something that competes, but launch something that the competition has to catch with three or four more moves in your back pocket.

It sounds so simple, but is so hard to do in reality because most of us are constrained by today’s budgets and today’s conditions. However, if you are one of the lucky ones who can plan a strategy for tomorrow’s budgets and conditions then, oh my, you can change the world.

Who would be in that position today?

Postnote: a good example of this strategic thinking is Virgin or, more specifically, Richard Branson. When asked how many companies he has  Branson looks perplexed. “I don’t know exactly,” he says. “Quite a few, I think. I know that over my lifetime I’ve started about 400 and employed 1.5 million people. So many that I keep bumping into people who used to work for Virgin — which is gratifying.”

The way Virgin target new markets is to draw out the key features of the existing players and then working out what additional features could they add. Apple does the same, as do Amazon and a few other companies. It is being obsessed with what the customer wants and needs.

I always remember when Virgin Atlantic launched and, for the first time, the premier customers were offered transport to and from the airport in Virgin cars. Sure, many airlines do this now but, back in the day, this was a hugely differential idea. The thought process was that the flight was not the most important part; the journey was. That’s how Virgin Atlantic realised it was from the leaving home to arriving at your hotel destination that was key, not just the boarding and disembarking. Mind you, Mr. Branson also thought of calling economy riff-raff, which is generally a phrase to describe the lower classes. They even had all the documents printed and ready for boarding with riff-raff until, two weeks before launch, he was convinced it wasn't a good idea.

Strategy is not about creating what others do, but doing what the customer wants and needs … even if they don’t even know they want or need it ... and obsessing with the customer, not just walking all over them.

“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Steve Jobs

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Henry Ford

“The best customer service is if the customer doesn't need to call you, doesn't need to talk to you. It just works.” Jeff Bezos

“Nobody raves about average.” Bill Quiseng

Chris Skinner Author Avatar

Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog,, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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