Needed: A return to simplicity

We’re hearing a steady hum across the industry as the market begins to recover a little, some forward visibility starts to creep in, and things, well . . . pick up, albeit in some slow-growth ways.

However, we’re also hearing something else: a cry for help in the form of simplicity. Let’s face it, not many people have time on their hands these days. There are fewer people in the offices to do the same amount of work. There are old processes to be thrown out, relics from a bygone era. There is less patience with wasting time – or money. Everyone is trying to simplify, simplify, simplify.

The problem is that so much of the industry is still relatively geared for a hugely competitive market that assumes lots of competitors, lots of products, and many nooks and crannies in which to differentiate oneself. We’ve said time and again, “One product or company does not make a category,” and yet companies are finding that competitors are getting swallowed up or going out of business. Macro categories are starting to develop where too much differentiation probably took place, and companies are trying to reposition into the next higher categories, where there are more competitors. This is true for telecom players as well as their clients – now is a good time to re-evaluate whether the positioning you pursued is too “niche-y” for today’s market.

The same is true of services. A lot of pricing plans and service definitions were the product of the super-competitive days when you needed lots of flexible products geared toward lots of microsegments – because there were competitors in all areas of the market. The lack of capital and competitors’ demise has reduced this somewhat, and we’re seeing a return to simplicity in product lines. Much more bundling, and much simpler pricing.

This is necessary to get people to buy faster – the more complex something is, the longer it takes to evaluate it.

A good example of a company trying to simplify is SBC Communications Inc., which has launched all-in-one packages for business, such as Business Unlimited. I applaud this move in one sense – it brings simplicity to the buying decision and makes it easy to purchase something relatively fast. In another sense, I’m leery of the long-term competitiveness of the telephone companies’ combined offerings, because the elements are largely generic options such as local service, long-distance, voice mail and call waiting – functions that are easily handled via cell phones or through unbundled network element-platform offerings. Bundling is not going to stem price competition.

Still, that’s not the biggest issue I have. Where SBC falls down is that deciding how to buy services from the darn company is still too complex. I’m in SNET territory, and I was looking for SBC’s Business Unlimited Service (announced in California) on the SBC Web site to see if I could get it in Connecticut. It soon became obvious I could not; a search of the Connecticut site found no hits on Business Unlimited. However, there was an option for SBC Connections for Business, which quickly reverted to a listing of internal product codes that even SBC did not try to expand on; the site merely told visitors to call SBC to figure out what was best for them. How lame. I found what I was looking for, simply, on MCI’s Web site.

That tells you something. If there is one thing I am hopeful for with the rebranding of MCI, it is a return to the simplicity and innovation that MCI had in its early years. At one time, MCI told you, “Be our customer and we’ll always guarantee you’re on the best plan we offer, so you don’t have to worry about switching plans, ever.” I loved that.

I don’t have time to shop around. My clients don’t, either. Neither do your customers. Now’s the time to look at the product lines and ask whether they really need to be that complex, or that niche-oriented, or that specialized. If you find yourself getting sick of all the brand names in your product lines, your customers could be sick of it, too.