Complexity is not to be admired

Complexity is not to be admired. It is to be avoided.

— Jack Trout, The Power of Simplicity (December 30, 2000)

The old ideas are new again. I’m reading Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success by Ken Segall, It’s excellent. Apple’s gift isn’t design or innovation or Steve Jobs. It’s a passion–and obsession, if you will–for simplicity.

(And for those NOOBs out there who think Jobs invented marketing, it’s the same thing Jack Trout was saying more than a decade ago.)

A wonderful example from the book describes the crux of the problem. When Jobs returned to Apple, he complained that he didn’t know what products to recommend to his friends; Apple offered too many computers in too many configurations. So he drew a four square grid on the whiteboard and defined the portfolio: laptops and desktops, basic and advanced. That’s it. Four computers. (Frankly, I don’t know where the Mac mini fits. I think it’s a competitive offering to say they have a sub-$500 desktop–as long as you bring your own monitor, keyboard, and mouse, but I digress.)

Now compare that with Dell or HP. Even after watching Apple simplify their product line, Dell and HP still offer a maelstrom of products and portfolios.

And compare Apple stores to almost anyone else’s. Except for the big crowds of people, Apple stores just seem to have less stuff than a typical store. I’m not surprised the same approach is not working for former Apple retail chief Ron Johnson with his new gig at JCPenney. Complexity is built in to every aspect of JCP. Penney’s is not a high-end store; they’re more like that rug store out near the airport that has been going out of business for the last 20 years. (And I guess it’s probably true in the case of Penney’s; they have been slowly going out of business for the last 20 years.)

Win and loss analysis is a powerful way to find out what your buyers think. When we talk to vendor’s customers, we hear things like, “they’re very hard to do business with.” And “their product suite is confusing; I’m still not sure we bought the right thing.” And “once I decided to buy, the paperwork almost killed the deal.”

What would your customers say? Is doing business with you simple or complex? Is your product line unnecessarily complex? Could the majority of your customers buy a simpler configuration?

For many vendors, win/loss analysis isn’t really analysis; it’s just reporting. “We won the deal.” ” We lost the deal.” Not very insightful.

Product managers who follow Pragmatic Marketing know that win/loss analysis is a key strategic activity for finding market problems. It can also give insights on how you market and sell.

Win/Loss Analysis means examining deals for success profiles. It’s determining which features are most important for buyers and understanding the key product factors in their buying decision. But it also means analyzing which configuration is sold most often, and which are statistical anomalies. Most of all, analysis will tell you which products (and buyers) are the most and least profitable. It tells you which products should be discontinued and, perhaps the most interesting result of win/loss analysis, helps you determine which customers should be discontinued.

At least once a year, product managers should look at the entire customer base to look for those clients who are not profitable and should not be renewed. After all, our customers do this with their vendors; why don’t you?

Or another consideration that will resonate with frequent flyers: how many clients have a “simple” problem and how many have a “complex” problem? Think of the last time you were at the airport attempting a simple transaction. For instance, you were upgraded to business class after you’d printed your boarding pass. So now you have to check in with an employee instead of using the kiosk. But alas, everyone ahead of you in line has some really complex problem–they missed their flight and their luggage is on it or something. All you know is that you’ve been standing in this line for a really long time and no one seems to be resolving their travel problems. Haven’t you wished for a “got a simple problem” line?

Contrast that with my (good) experience renewing my driver’s license. I went to the Virginia DOT office and a receptionist triaged my issue. My simple issue took me to the simple issue queue. The person ahead of me had some bizarre “complex” problem and went to a different queue.

Is it simple to get customer support? Is it simple to buy the standard configuration? Is it simple to do business with your company?

Do you need 63 configurations? Or would 4 or 5 do the job?

Complexity is not to be admired. Our pricing, our configurations, our portfolios often become complex as we try to accommodate every conceivable customer. Look for the patterns in your wins and losses to see where complexity can be avoided.

Simplicity. It’s not a complex idea but it’s often complex to implement.

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