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Best Practices Are Not

In speaking with clients there is a pervasive theme that many seem to subscribe to in setting goals, strategies, and objectives. The ‘holy grail’ for these clients is the determination and definition of industry, “best practices.”

Unfortunately, aspiring to incorporating the industry’s best practices is a losing strategy that is focused on the wrong basis of comparison. Rather than comparing oneself to a competitor’s last effort, the more appropriate comparison is to the CUSTOMER’S wants for the future.  By focusing on what is currently in place and available in the market, the best one can do is to mimic another.  By virtue of being second to provide something to the market, the payoff can ONLY be to split the available market.  Furthermore, because one is mirroring what another has already incorporated into their approach, the possibility exists that the competitor is already considering how to either improve upon it or even replace it with something innovative and revolutionary.  By aspiring to reach the “best practice” level, the best one can achieve is an evolutionary change.

So what to do?

Rather than benchmarking against what other competitors are doing, the more appropriate benchmark is against customer wants, needs, or desires.  Seek to uncover from your customer:

  1. What frustrates you about the way services are provided, products are delivered, or ordered?
  2. What kind of product features do you wish you had?
  3. What outcomes are you trying to accomplish?
  4. What do you currently think is “just the way it is” or “the way it has always been?”
  5. What do you have to” put up with” in order to complete the business transaction?

By reframing the vision of how to improve competitive positioning by focusing on the customer and outcomes over trying to match what a competitor is already doing and has become associated with providing – the company can blaze a new path that it alone is known for and has no competition in providing.


It is not always easy to get a clear answer by asking customers the above questions because they are not the kinds of questions that are commonly asked.  Therefore, you may have to provide prompts or allow the customer to really think about it before responding.  Because many customers accept the standard offering without really questioning “what could be” – they have not invested much time in thinking about product improvements.

However, if allowed to watch how someone uses or interacts with a product (and what they need to do on their own to support the use of the product, get ready to use it, steps taken after the use of the product, etc. it is possible to gain some ideas on how the product can be improved or the experience of using the product can be more pleasant/effective/beneficial.

Lastly, the history of product innovation contains many examples of creative entrepreneurs that recognized needs or product ideas that were not at all based on existing paradigms (competition or customer), but rather were insight-driven as a result of advances in technology, manufacturing, or took advantage of unique synergies.  Some of the most obvious are:

  • The automobile is not a better horse and carriage
  • The internet is not an improved telephone
  • The combustion engine within the automobile leverages the synergies just as a web browser harnesses the synergies of what the internet offers.

Each of these looked at a way of improving the customer’s capabilities by looking past “best practices” and competitive benchmarking and envisioning approaches that were complete changes to product or service offerings.

David Zahn