Business Technology

Understanding the expectation economy

5 min read

23 March 2016

Being a professional in a consumer-facing industry can feel like standing in the path of an avalanche – a constant stream of new products, services, campaigns and more pour into the marketplace every day. Meanwhile, the expectations of your customers cycle ever higher.

It can feel impossible simply to keep up, let alone devise and execute a meaningful response. But ultimately, success for any brand or startup revolves around answering one simple question: what will my customers want next? Business leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, and marketers obsess over this question. The problem? The received wisdom on how to answer it is wrong.

One approach is asking people what they want. But we all know that often, as Steve Jobs once observed, “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Then what about watching people to discern what they will want.

Yes, it’s undeniable that these kinds of ethnographic fieldwork can yield deep insights. But obtaining these insights is hard, not to mention time-consuming and expensive. Of course, today we have Big Data. Problem solved? Not quite: while data is great at optimising existing initiatives, taken alone it rarely offers the breakthrough insight that gives rise to something truly new.

So what’s the answer? Enter, a radical new way to answer to the ultimate business question: trends.

Talking about “trends” often confuses people (are we talking about fashion? new technologies? what’s #trending?) but simply put, our entire business is based around a powerful, counterintuitive truth: in a business arena characterised by relentless change and hyper-competition to anticipate what people will want next, stop looking at customers and start to look at businesses. 

Read more about business trends:

Yes, we’re saying that the answers to the question what will my customers want next? lies in looking – in a structured way – at the very onslaught of new products, services and campaigns that feels so overwhelming.

How can that be true? The answer lies in the new expectations these innovations create among customers. In short, game-changing new products, services and campaigns create new customer expectations, and those expectations will eventually become trends that spread all the way to your door.

One example is the way Uber leveraged smartphones to serve the basic human needs for convenience and value in a new way when it comes to transport. That now iconic innovation helped establish new expectations of instant, one-touch, smartphone-fuelled services, and those expectations have since spread to countless other industries and markets. 

Handy, the US-based on-demand home services startup, raised $50m in November. In China, Edaixi, an on-demand laundry app, has raised $100m. Look, also, at the Amazon Dash buttons – smart buttons for the home that enable instant purchase from Amazon – and how they tap into new expectations of one-touch service. Look, indeed, at The Drop Off, the instant dinner party app that supplied the first sentence of this article. So Uber helped create new expectations and those expectations spread, becoming the now well-established trend known as on-demand. 

That’s the Expectation Economy in action, and it’s how game-changing innovations create the new expectations that you’ll soon be facing. That’s why watching innovations in a structured way – interrogating them for the new expectations they create – can empower you to spot the trends that will shape what your customers want next.

The Steve Jobs quote mentioned above? In full it runs like this: “Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”

So the secret to trend-driven Innovation is looking at disruptive, expectation-setting innovations helps you to read what’s not yet on the pages for your customers. Look at what other business are showing people. Read what’s on those pages and then write your own.

The market moves fast these days. Innovation and customer satisfaction matter more than ever, and the pressure is on to deliver value faster. Companies need to stay ahead of the curve by not only considering the trends that are disrupting businesses and shaping the workplace of today, but also by understanding how to adapt and flourish because of them.

David Mattin is author of “Trend-Driven Innovation“, published by Wiley and Head of Trends & Insights at TrendWatching.

Image: Shutterstock