Most mature businesses already have a pretty good idea of the answer to this question. Though they may not always keep that answer up to date. And they should.
Because customers (individuals) are changing their habits, as a result of the digital revolution delivering fast access to information.
And for startups, being able to define what customers want will determine success or failure. It is not enough to just have a “good idea”. Somebody, somewhere has to want what you create, enough to pay for it.
We all can and do learn a lot from talking to customers and listening to what they have to say.
So when it comes to a country like Australia, what do our export markets say they want from us?
What products and services are going to generate the export income we need to build a balanced economy, and provide “jobs and growth” – the two things our political leaders sloganise so glibly?
We will not generate enough jobs and growth from pushing products and services into the Australian market alone. We have to export.
And we have finally woken up to the fact that it is wise not to put all our eggs in one basket. Mining.
Mining is still important, but we now need to generate income by selling into multiple markets all over the world if we are to diversify beyond mining, spread the risk and build a sustainable broad based economy.
So what do those overseas markets need? What do they want? What can we sell them?
And luckily Trade and Investment Queensland and other state and federal trade organisations constantly gather that information for us, by researching and talking with customers in marketplaces across the world.
Our twelve major overseas markets have all published their priorities. We know what they are. And we are well positioned to deliver many of the goods and services they want.
And if you put the priorities all together and look for the patterns (which anyone can do) a few things stand out.
There is a theme that is common across all those markets. A theme based on the conclusions of hundreds of analysts, policy writers and decision makers across the globe.
Which can be summarised as an ongoing trend towards “clean, green and smart” products and services.
It is that simple.
The reasons are obvious. Growing populations need more food. Growing middle class populations want safe and healthy food. They want high quality food, protein and choice. Growing urban populations want clean air, cheap and accessible transport. Growing populations want jobs. They want entertainment and they want to travel. They want to learn English. They want to learn.
There is recognition across all markets that healthy food and environment is important, that clean energy is important, and the intelligent use of technology can and should be applied to everything.
Which is good news for us as we adjust our economic focus to concentrate on new opportunities. “Clean, green and smart” is right up our alley.
Of the 12 major markets, 10 are interested in agriculture and food – organic food, value added food, clean food, tasty food, food with a guarantee of quality. We do this well in Australia, though New Zealand does it better, and we both do it better and better every day.
Precision agriculture, robots, drones, ID and sensors. New variants, organic farming, “bugs for bugs” and aquaculture. Smart thinking applied to smart farming and smart farmers. A good start.
9 markets are interested in education and training. We do this well, as well.
8 markets are interested in our professional services - our engineers, designers, architects and environmental services. Room for expansion here. Services only represent 10% of exports so far.
8 markets are interested in renewable energy.
5 markets are interested in mining services and associated technologies. We are pretty good at applying technology to mining and we lead the world in many ways, with robots, drones and niche mining software.
4 markets are interested in aged care solutions. Room for a big rethink here.
And so it goes. Opportunities. Spelled out by customers. Big demand. And growing.
That is what they want. That is what they hope from us. And one thing is sure. If we don’t deliver these products and services, somebody else will.
Some countries already are. But we have strengths they don’t have, which can be leveraged. And of course the same is true for them, so we don’t have time to drift along in the way we usually do. We have to take control of the response, the speed and direction we are heading.
And that means decision at the top. Followed by swift action.
We are not good at either of those.
We are fuzzy in aligning political decisions to overseas market priorities and spend far too long dithering about action. Others (competitors) are moving quicker than we are and that is creating a growing problem.
And though we have plentiful skills and capabilities to deliver, we should have more. We have to build on our strengths not diminish them.
Policy should be applied to matching customer needs against our capacity to deliver. No ideology in that. Simple pragmatism.
We should have more scientists, engineers, designers, thinkers, teachers, manufacturers, farmers, developers and architects.
So we can deliver against the worldwide demand for “clean, green and smart” products and services today and on into the future.
This trend has been apparent for the last ten years.
It is now growing, driven by changes in the expectations of a digitally informed and expanding middle class, local and regional “reality checks” on the availability of clean food, water and air, political expediency (keeping populations content), rising health expenditure (clashing with diminishing health budgets) and an ageing population.
These changes generate the demands and priorities from overseas.
These trends will be with us for the next twenty years and beyond.
Focus on solutions to the demands from our 12 major markets and a bright future is guaranteed.
And that means “watering the right parts” of our economic ecosystem.
Watering the roots not the branches. Putting money and policy consideration where it will do the most good.
What are the roots? Education. Training. STEM. Design. Collaboration.
And like Israel, we should be smart enough to lock government loans and investment into growing global businesses headquartered in Australia, and not allow the fruits of locally generated IP and investment to be picked up easily at low cost by overseas corporations, once they are ripe.
And that means more practical support for people like Dr Chris Nave of Brandon Partners, who is doing something positive to build Australian headquartered global companies.
It means more money for education, not less. More money for CSIRO not less.
More money and respect (money) for teachers not less.
It means more money for smart technologies of all kinds – cleantech, greentech, biotech, medtech, robotech, designtech, agtech, anytech.
More money for the purveyors and sharers of information and knowledge in our society (the ABC) through more programs like Landline and Catalyst.
And that is about policy and then action. It is about a political decision in Canberra from whichever party wins the election.
Our export market customers have told us what they want.
But we seem to be ignoring them.
In fact all our customers have told us what they want.
The digital revolution has shifted the gravity of power in customer relationships, with the power moving from the vendor to the customer.
Who am I?
I am your new customer. I have fast access to information. I have access to a network of trusted opinions. I will check things out.
I don’t want cold calls on my phone. There are over 200 million numbers on Do Not Call lists. I especially don’t want calls from robots on my phone. Or script jockeys.
I ignore direct mail. Half of direct mail is never even opened.
I don’t want spam.
I am time poor, and I don’t want to go anywhere to find information (other than Google), I want information to find me. Relevant information not spam (irrelevant information).
I will not visit your government web site. Except by accident. Or to pay a bill.
I fast forward through ads on TV or switch channels. 86% of people skip TV commercials.
I don’t click on ads except by accident trying to close the pop up window. Only 8% of people pay attention to online ads. And only a minute number click through to action or sale.
I am getting really good at selective attention. Or inattention. But I still want the opportunity to speak with somebody when I need to.
And I don’t want to be hassled by marketers or sales people, online or offline. I want to be helped.
But vendors (and this includes government departments) don’t see this.
Vendors have “my product” blindness.
They can only see things through the coloured spectacles of what they do or sell every day. The next quarter bottom line causes short sightedness. Vision is coloured by culture and distorted. It is not clear.
Do vendors hear this?
Vendors have “my product” deafness as well.
They only hear things that resonate with their 20th century corporate beliefs. The words of approval. The language of agreement. Yes men and women. They are largely deaf to new ideas or a different kind of customer relationship.
Look at the blindness and deafness displayed by 7-Eleven towards its internal customers. They don’t get it.
How do you do strategy if you can’t see or hear or think clearly? You don’t. You do something else.
Our 12 major export markets have been telling us what they want for a long time. But it was easier to just keep selling coal and iron ore. That’ll be enough. And it wasn’t.
We should have used that income to diversify years ago, planning for a rainy day. Like Norway. But we just dished out tax cuts instead.
Short term political expediency trumps long term planning and investment by governments almost every single time.
I have a dream. One day, government departments (all of them not one) might sit down with a clean sheet and a clean whiteboard. Start with the customer, talk to them, listen to them and then collectively work towards a solution.
Not just do a fact-finding tour to find what we already decided we were going to find in the first place.
Not so long ago, Sol Trujillo thought that the dominance of Sensis and its directory business would not be assailed by Google and said so famously, “Google schmoogle”.
Sol is of course, now just history. Google isn’t. With the arrogance inherent to many large organisations, Sol ignored the customer.
At Telstra, he had power. He had lots of money. He had research. He had one of the best sales forces in Australia. But he was blind and deaf to what was changing in the world about him.
And that change was driven by the customer and enabled by technology.
This story can be applied to most other large vendors including governments across the planet.
They are not listening to their customers. They have not recognised the customer has changed.
Vendors think they understand, but their actions prove the lie.
In the short term, the changing customer doesn’t really seem to be a big problem. But erosion, grain by grain, pebble by pebble, customer by customer is still erosion and will make the biggest mountain disappear.
Ignore it at your peril. Sensis (Yellow Pages) is now dead and buried, a hollow shell of the “rivers of gold” directory business it used to be. And it will never be the same again.
And under the radar and everywhere right now, somebody is building a competitive alternative that is slicker, local, cheaper and more agile, and most importantly reflects what the customer now wants and needs.
And our 12 major overseas markets all have other options. Clean, green and smart.
Time to wake up.