Just what can Apple, Google teach us about avoiding competition in business?

In this age of hyper connectivity, if you think that you’re in direct competition with someone else, there’s something wrong with your business strategy. For many businesses, there’s an angle or a niche just waiting to be exploited — and the key to unlocking this success is to not compete at all.

Look at Google and Apple, for example; Apple no more just make computers than Google are just in the search business. When you elect to use one of Google’s business software applications like Gmail or Wave, or when you choose to buy an iMac or MacBook Pro from Apple, you’re buying into a statement-making philosophy — Apple and Google exude minimalist simplicity.

For those that choose to compete with such industry behemoths, they choose to engage in a battle with two businesses that can churn out complementary innovations with unerring and repetitious ease, designed to stultify even the hardiest of business strategies — just ask Microsoft, a competitor to both Apple and Google and a company that is losing in key markets to both.

Controlling the business experience

Apple control the whole computer experience from the moment you walk into one of their stores, even beyond you pulling out your credit card. From then on, you’re within the gears and cogs of a very slick, highly artificial but incredibly refined and precisely managed event, culminating not in a purchase, as is the case with their competitors, but at the moment you begin using your Apple product for the first time. Why? Because it’s about the experience.

For those who use Google’s new Wave, an innovative collaborative communications tool, or Gmail, their highly respected web email client, you’re working within an ultra-efficient software environment that apes the features of bigger commercial software like Microsoft Office, but instead gives you just what you need to accomplish the task at hand, and for free.

By way of a disclaimer, I’ll freely admit that not everyone has the luxury of moving their businesses around in such a way as to reduce their exposure to competition. But for those that are nimble and fleet-footed enough to spot a niche, it’s worth expending the effort and exploring those gaps in the market.

So what’s the take-away moral of this story? Your task is to look at what you do, compare that to what your competitors do and create an experience that is so compelling, so enhanced and so client-centric that the added value nature of your service is reason enough for those clients to justify the expense of choosing you over anyone else.

The term premiumization springs to mind, and while apt, it’s a buzzword I personally dislike. And here’s some ideas about how to distance yourself from those around you: And here’s some ideas about how to distance yourself from those around you:

  • Personalize your service from beginning to end.
  • Think about your clients needs and anticipate in advance what they might want, then…
  • … Exceed the expectations / needs of your clients.
  • If possible, avoid competing on price and concentrate on quality.
  • Demonstrate just how much you know your industry and start your own blog.
  • Keep things simple, avoid buzzwords and don’t be afraid to say no!

Today, more than at any other time, there are just too many businesses doing the same things. Between differentiation and diversification hides a strategy that will help you build a service-driven business that places quality and your clients before all else.

Adobe versus web usability and common sense

Adobe’s website is a good example of bad web usability. I discovered this for myself only last week. If you thought buying software from Adobe would be easy, you might want to think again.

Since buying their main rival Macromedia, Adobe have a huge collection of software for creative businesses like Octane. I represent their target audience, and as a web designer and developer, people like me have very high standards indeed. So we expect very high standards from Adobe.

The most profound genius is that borne of precise observation. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle must have been only too aware of this as the attraction for his most famous yet personally disliked character Sherlock Holmes grew.

Sadly for Adobe, their website offers an exceptionally bad experience for people like me. Clearly demonstrating that the simple act of observing how people do things and then anticipating their next actions is neither art, science or practice for Adobe. Instead, they’ve made the purchasing experience as difficult as possible.

As big as Adobe are, I have to wonder how many sales they lose each week because of their appalling sales funnel. Only recently did a story emerge of a “$300 million button”, highlighting the perils of a bad shopping experience. Adobe’s problems are much more than a simple button fix — the entire purchasing experience is broken from the very beginning to the very end.

So you thought buying software from Adobe would be easy, right?

Because I’m from England, I use their .co.uk website, which then re-directs to their .com/uk/ address. Clearly we can see that the Adobe website is aware of where I’m visiting from, yes?

I’m interested in buying Adobe’s Creative Suite. Adobe’s home page seems neat enough, but this is a superficial appearance. The first thing I notice is that there’s no one Creative Suite, there are in fact four variations. So which Creative Suite is right for me?

the Adobe home page

And how do I decide? I clicked the: “Learn more” button, only to discover that there are actually six different Creative Suite collections; Design Premium, Design Standard, Web Premium, Web Standard, Production Premium and Master Collection. Rather surprisingly, this page doesn’t really offer any more information than the last.

I’m reminded of my first visit to the US back in 1996. During an eight week college exchange program to Northridge in Los Angeles, we paid a visit to a book store in Santa Monica. Downstairs was a cafe where people could sit and read through some of the books they’re considering buying, or the ones they’d just bought.

I decided to buy a coffee. And, not knowing any better I asked for a coffee. As the words tripped off my tongue, I saw behind the assistant a huge collection of coffee bean bags all sat in neat little square shelf boxes. I’m talking about hundreds of varieties of coffee. Needless to say, the assistant and I laughed.

Adobe, Microsoft: don’t make me think!

I now remember how I felt that day and someone must feel when trying to buy Microsoft Windows and discovering there isn’t just one version of Windows, but seven.

I’m being forced to make a decision about a product I clearly know very little about, and the paucity of information isn’t helping me make that decision. Sometimes, thinking isn’t automatically a good thing.

It’s at this point that I realize I have no idea what I need. Sure, I know what I want, but because of the different choices available to be, I don’t know what I need. Since simply asking (or rather looking) for a copy of Adobe’s Creative Suite is pointless, I click on the: “Suite selector” link, to try my luck elsewhere.

The first thing I see is a huge selection of check boxes. I feel my heart sink. Exactly what is: “cross-media design”? And what’s the difference between: “prepare digital images for print” and: “edit digital images”? Or the difference between: “import and organize images” and: “manage a pro photography workflow”?

choose an Adobe Creative Suite by activity

As my heart sinks, my head begins to spin. I don’t even attempt to choose from the check boxes and click on the second tab, to select by product. All I want is Photoshop, Illustrator and Flash. Alas, there is no Creative Suite that includes those three software packages. Instead, I’d have to choose Photoshop Extended, which forces me to choose the Premium and Master versions. I can see a correlation between Premium / Master and extremely expensive.

choose an Adobe Creative Suite by products

My heart sinks further. This isn’t any kind of choice, certainly not the kind of choice I expected to see from Adobe.

OK, let’s say for the sake of argument I was going to buy Adobe Creative Suite 4 Design Premium. I still don’t know what else is in this collection and I still don’t have a clue how much it’s likely to cost me. So I click the illustration of box .. and I click again, only to realize you can’t actually click on the graphic because it’s not a button. I have to click the: “See our recommendations” button below. Is this intuitive? No, it’s not.

The resulting page offers hardly any more information than the last. To learn more, I have to click again. It appears the Web Premium package looks about right, but I don’t want Fireworks, Acrobat or Dreamweaver. Sadly, I have no choice.

Adobe recommendations for the Creative Suite collection

Now I have three buttons to choose from: “Buy”, “Try” and: “Learn more”. I choose the former, because I still don’t know what this lot is going to cost. I’m taken to the Adobe Store, where I’m now being asked to choose which region I’m from. Why? Adobe already know I’m visiting from England.

the Adobe Store

Frustration creeps in. I click on the: “United Kingdom” option, which is right at the bottom of the page. I’m now taken to the Adobe Store proper. Where’s the Web Premium package? That’s right, the very package I chose to buy is not on the store page. Instead, the Adobe website just dumps me onto their main Adobe Store page.

I’m sure Steve Krug would be just thrilled to see his “Don’t make me think!” mantra being shot to pieces by a company like Adobe who really should know better.

At this point, I’ve totally lost patience with Adobe and decide it would be much easier to call their freephone 0800 number. Well, the idea was excellent, sadly for Adobe, their automated call handling system isn’t. After selecting an option, I’m transferred into the ether and the line goes dead. Thinking this might just be me, I try again. Dead. I call from my mobile phone. Dead.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had problems with Adobe. Back in April 2007, I discovered that Adobe Contribute is broken. Worse still, Adobe don’t care that Contribute is broken.

What was it I said about professionalism again?