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Staying one step ahead

By Stephen Cooke

“HOW DO you find out what the customer wants before they want it?”

It could be the very question senior executives at dairy processing companies ask themselves every day. If not, it should be. Their answers will help ensure demand for dairy products continues into an uncertain future.

It was the question posed by Professor Robert Wolcott of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Illinois, Chicago, at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference held in Lexington, Kentucky last month.

“If a customer is telling you they want something, guess who else they are telling? Your competition!

“So, how do you find out what the customer wants before they want it? We must ask better questions,” he said.

Prof Wolcott said for companies to evolve and thrive in ever-changing markets, they required:

  • Fortification: Extend and defend the core business.
  • Exploration: Create growth through exploring future opportunities.

“A business’ product will not remain the most revolutionary idea to consumers forever. “There are other companies that are trying to do things bigger, better and faster. “Competition is tough, and top businesses can quickly transition from predators in the industry to prey.

“We must rise to the occasion, whether we succeed or not. It is in the attempt that we grow as human beings and as organizations.”

Prof Wolcott provided the example of Amazon, which for three years has been anticipating the orders of users and stocking them in a nearby warehouse, ready for shipping.

Wolcott informed the audience that if a user clicks, or even hovers, over the same product in the online store more than once, Amazon will anticipate that the user is just a few more clicks away from making a purchase.

When the customer finally decides to pull the trigger and buy the item they have been eyeing for weeks, Amazon will have already sent it to the warehouse nearest that consumer.

“Human beings want what they want, where they want it, when they want it,” said Wolcott.

Amazon’s “anticipatory shipping” is meeting that demand.

Prof Wolcott said today’s global supply chain is based on a model where larger plants with lower costs dominate the business world. He predicts this model will be destroyed over the next 30 years.

3D printing is shaping as the biggest threat to the current status quo.

“Why would extra tools, resources and employees be necessary to build something over the span of days, weeks or months, when 3D printing could provide it in minutes?”

Prof Wolcott said the question we are used to asking is: “How can this technology help us be better at what we already do?”

“This is a great question,” said Wolcott. “Keep asking it. But that’s not enough.”

“We need to ask, ‘What can this technology help us do that we have never done before?’

“Is it innovative like electric cars? Expedient like anticipatory shopping? Convenient like 3D printing?”

“We need to ask ‘Where might the future go?’

“Is the idea sustainable? Does it keep up with the trends that are found through foresight?”

• Alltech Lienert Australia funded Stephen Cooke’s visit to the One Conference in Lexington, Kentucky.