If you're old, like me, you probably remember vacationing with the family way back when...driving down brand new interstates...and staying at some motel, like Holiday Inn or Howard Johnson's (HoJo's!).
Back then we didn't expect much from our motel room. A bed, chair, bathroom, towels, a TV. However, one of my Mom's expectations for our motel of choice was a clean bathroom. The great thing about her expectation was you knew instantly when you walked into your room whether the bathroom was truly clean or not. The clean ones always had a sanitary paper wrap around the toilet seat!
Then one day, some hotel chain put an iron and ironing board in our room. WOW, that was awesome! We didn't have to call housekeeping and beg them to bring an iron to our room. That hotel did something no other hotel did and, as a result, became our choice hotel.
Of course, that advantage didn't last long when every other hotel/motel chain in the US put an iron and ironing board in their rooms. It wasn't a wow anymore. It became an expectation.
Then some bright hotel executive figured out they could add shampoo and conditioner as an advantage. We were thrilled until all the chains did it. Another expectation from customers added to the list.
Air conditioning? Expectation. Alarm clock? Expectation. Remote control TV? Expectation. Coffee makers? Expectation. Blow dryers? Expectation. USA Today? Expectation. Heavenly bed? Expectation. WiFi? Expectation.
What was once an advantage for some hotel chain quickly became copied in some form by everybody else. And once something was copied by all, it became an expectation to the customer. Think about it. Have you had any recent experience where something was missing? You probably noticed it immediately. I actually stayed at an upscale property in Alexandria, VA a while back that did NOT have irons and ironing boards in their rooms. I was astonished and more than a little peeved when I had to wait for them to deliver one.
This creates quite the dilemma for businesses. Because of competition and technology, we keep adding benefits to our products and services. We enjoy a clear, but too often brief advantage. Unfortunately, like in my hotel example, if something can be copied, it will be copied. Once copied, we have to look for another advantage we can develop.
Of course, we also watch our competition. When they develop a new benefit, we copy it in some way (usually it's an exact duplicate, in fact). We take away their advantage and pat ourselves on the back.
Meanwhile, the customer gets educated. He or she gets educated to EXPECT the new perks. Even worse, they often get these new perks for no extra cost. Whether I stay in a Hyatt or a Holiday Inn Express, I expect to find pretty much everything I wrote about above. All these benefits are now part of the expected package when I check in.
A dilemma. Adding all these benefits add cost. They often add labor. But to the customer, they are FREE. Damn those customers and their expectations.
But, as Pogo so famously said, "We have met the enemy and he is us." We are our own worst enemy because we continue to add incremental, easily copied improvements to our product offerings and then get upset when somebody does copy.
We are also the enemy because outside the walls of our own businesses we are somebody's customer. At the end of the day, we take our marketing hat off and WE expect more value for our hard-earned dollar. We are no different from our own customers who make us tear our hair out.
The answer? Stop practicing continuous, incremental improvement. Start practicing continuous innovation. These are fundamentally different propositions. Improvement can almost always be copied. True innovation is much more difficult.