It is less apparent is how deeply this changes the nature of businesses relationships, and how all aspects of a company are transformed by the shift from a linear product pipeline to the cycle of a recurring relationship. What we have seen is just the beginning. First a look at how far we have come, then a look toward the next level.
Foundations: "The Subscription Economy"
A thought-provoking view of how deep this change already is, is in the new book, Subscribed: Why the Subscription Model Will Be Your Company's Future and What to Do About It. I read a pre-release copy and see it as a must-read for anyone with responsibility for designing, managing, or even just executing on business models of any kind -- even if you think subscriptions are not relevant to your business.
Author Tien Tzuo (with Gabe Weisert) speaks in terms of "subscriptions," but this book is is very relevant to recurring business relationships more broadly. Relationships are the future of business. Call it a subscription, a membership, or just a loyalty loop in the customer journey. In our connected digital world, relationships will deepen -- or they will die.
Tien applies the experience of his journey from the very early days of Salesforce to founding Zuora and its fast growth to a recent $1.4B IPO -- where he has had a unique view into the guts of thousands of subscription businesses and their growing pains. Zuora has popularized the term "The Subscription Economy" and provided thought leadership in this space, including well-attended conferences and a rich body of Web resources. (I have spoken several times at Zuora events, beginning in 2011.) Zuora also provides rich data on "The Subscription Economy Index," drawn from the anonymized system activity of hundreds of subscription companies around the world (summarized in the book). His book provides a compelling call to arms and compendium of key concepts and best practices.
The next level -- it's all about valuing customer experiences
This book also provides an excellent foundation for looking further ahead, to a next level in recurring business relationships. My work on FairPay suggests that next step is a sharper, deeper, and more cooperative focus on the value of experiences. I see that shift of focus, leading to a deepening of relationships in which customers are more equal partners. Subscriptions are the most explicit form of recurring relationship, but the essence of what we must now seek to master is how to value experiences, in what I would describe as The Relationship Economy (or The Relationship Value Economy).
We all know that the essence of business is value exchange, but how deeply and broadly do we think about value? How often do we ask our customers about value as they see it?
I build on what Tien covers, adding exploration of the largely neglected layers of value, and how closer attention to value can enhance relationships.
My focus here is primarily, but not entirely, about B2C relationships. Those are generally asymmetrical, with a human on one side, and an organization on the other side. Our current mind-set is that businesses set the rules of the game, and consumers play their role within those rules. But I suggest that is a temporary anomaly that will revert to a more balanced model.
From products to services -- from transactions to relationships -- Service Level Agreements
Tien quotes Forrester as calling this "The Age of the Customer," and explores how this involves a shift from the old linear flow business model of products through channels to customers, to a new cyclical flow business model that puts the customer at the center -- surrounded by a customer journey cycle of interactions (supported by a corresponding cycle of back-end business processes). (Forrester describes this as a transformation that is driven both from top-down and from bottom up -- drawing on a mind-shift, big-data-based business insights, and transformation of the customer experience, all based on digital transformation.)
Tien describes the thought experiments his team did in the early days of Zuora, thinking about what the limits of subscriptions might be -- could you apply it to refrigerators? floors? elevators? roofs? "Here's the secret we used to answer all of them in the affirmative -- tease out the service-level agreement that sits behind the product. It works for everything. So instead of a refrigerator, it's the guarantee of fresh, cold food..."
Recurring relationships as a repeated game
Whether you think of it as a subscription, or a membership, or just a service agreement, the essence is this recurring cycle of interactions -- the result is that the flow of business changes from linear to circular. This has deep implications, both as to operations, and as to the nature of the relationship. Game theory tells us that one-shot games create very different player behaviors from repeated games. All recurring business has elements of a repeated game, but effective game design can make the game more productive, cooperatively win-win, and long-lived. Let's start with the operational aspects, then consider the broader game.
For example he explains how a fundamental change in finance is needed, from the backward view of one-shot product sales inherent in Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), to a new kind of accounting that is forward looking toward Customer Lifetime Value. A meaningful accounting must recognize that what matters is not the revenue in the last quarter, but the recurring revenue stream for many quarters forward (decreased by churn, and increased by customer acquisition and up-selling/cross-selling). He explains how he convinced his investors that growth expenses are much like capital expenses, in that they pay off not in the next quarter, but over an extended time -- and that Wall Street has been slow to recognize this. Similarly, he explores how this cyclical pattern affects all other functions, and requires greater cross-functional cooperation to assure a good customer experience at each touch-point.
This deep enterprise strategy focus draws on Tien's role at Zuora, competing with the likes of Oracle and SAP. That focus makes his book a strong complement to the excellent existing books in this space that are more marketing-focused, including Anne Janzer's Subscription Marketing and Robbie Kellman Baxter's The Membership Economy.
Pricing and packaging as "one of the most powerful growth levers"
In his discussion of marketing, Tien highlights the importance of a topic few businesses think very much about:
"Pricing and packaging" is an old-fashioned-sounding term that might remind you of stocking grocery store shelves, but for subscription business it is one of the most powerful growth levers you can have...In fact pricing is the most important of the four P's [Product, Price, Promotion, Place, from Marketing 101].
... Subscription pricing is trickier...at the end of the day, you're not pricing an object, you're pricing an outcome...what do you do about the fact that customers may assign different value to the same outcome? This ambiguity is intrinsic to the subscription model, and it can be either empowering or paralyzing.
...But what happens when you get it right? Whoo boy. Well, customer acquisition gets much easier, and churn gets reduced. Better yet, as your relationship with each subscriber deepens, as you become a bigger part of their lives, that value is translated into revenue...creating a virtuous cycle...You can create intuitive customer journeys...with relevant tipping points along the way. And when your pricing model locks into that subscriber journey, this is when (click) your business model locks into subscriber relationships, and a valuable company is born.That nicely sets the stage for the next level, which we will get to shortly (but first a broader view).
Customer journeys and loyalty loops -- virtuous cycles
The description above shows how pricing and packaging is what powers the customer journey. The essential issue is the recurring business relationship, and this applies more broadly -- whether a "subscription" or not. In fact, even in product businesses that have no explicit recurrence, modern marketing has recognized the critical importance of repeat customers to profitability. This is seen in how customer journeys form loyalty loops, as Edelman and Singer explained in HBR:
Rather than merely reacting to the journeys that consumers themselves devise, companies are shaping their paths, leading rather than following. Marketers are increasingly managing journeys as they would any product. Journeys are thus becoming central to the customer’s experience of a brand—and as important as the products themselves in providing competitive advantage.
In the classic journey, consumers engage in an extended consideration and evaluation phase before either entering into the loyalty loop or proceeding into a new round of consideration and evaluation that may lead to the subsequent purchase of a different brand.
The new journey compresses the consider step and shortens or entirely eliminates the evaluate step, delivering customers directly into the loyalty loop and locking them within it.Thus, recurring relationships are based on "locking" customers into this loyalty loop. The question is whether you try to lock them in by using zero-sum manipulative strategies, or by gaining their trust and cooperation with win-win strategies that deliver value to the customer. As Tien points out, early subscription businesses such as book or record of the month clubs "shipped products by default and made customers pay the price...when they fail to cancel in time... Sadly, lots of companies still depend on customer neglect in order to sustain their zombie business models." Manipulation can work in the short-run ("you can fool all of the people some of the time..."), but which path leads to winning in the long term?
Rooting the customer journey in value
Smart marketers increasingly recognize the importance of customer journeys and loyalty loops. Tien and the others teaching us about these subscription and membership models clearly argue for customer experiences that build trust and loyalty. Tien and many others see value-based pricing as a key factor in doing that.
To that end, I suggest we focus on the unseen connecting layer in Tien's diagram. It shows the inner circle of the customer's view (subscribe, renew, ...) and the outer circle of the business operation's view (quote, order, provision, ...). But what connects these layers?
- Operationally, it is dialog between the customer and the business. This is increasingly a digital connection that can become much more fully bi-directional and nuanced. We are just beginning to tap the power of these connections, using CRM systems (now mostly just for problem handling) and social media (still erratic and largely decoupled from operations), and nascent uses of chatbots (voice and text, powered by AI) that will give this more depth, breadth, and nuance -- and more bi-directionality.
- But what is the substance of these interactions? Value exchange and value propositions that underlie the interactions. Customer consider, evaluate, buy, enjoy, advocate, and bond because they are seeking value. Everything else is just a a means to that end. There is specific monetary quid pro quo (typically in the form of price per unit of service), but that is judged in terms of a rich world of factors such as usage, outcomes, service, and support -- and fuzzier values such as responsiveness, risk, social values, transparency, and trust.
You can create intuitive customer journeys...with relevant tipping points along the way. And when your pricing model lock into that subscriber journey, this is when (click) your business model locks into subscriber relationships, and a valuable company is born.How do we get that lock in? A key aspect of pricing is whether it is usage based. Tien's view across both B2B and B2C businesses reveals some key points about the metrics of value. He notes that "at its heart, usage-based billing is a way of quantifying value...how they actually use your service...a 'value metric.' Simply put, a value metric should do three things: align to customer needs, grow with customers, and be predictable (both for customers and the organization)." But his firm's analysis of the subscription businesses they track finds that "only about 27 percent...use some sort of usage-based pricing today." He finds that those who do grow significantly faster. In B2C, unlimited usage plans are generally the norm. But, referring to cable companies, Tien says "smarter usage-based billing...will make their video content services more responsive and valuable."
Conventional wisdom is that consumers don't like usage-based models, but I suggest that is just because we have not yet gotten creative about applying modern technology to let us do usage-based pricing in a smarter way. We need to find pricing strategies that are truly aligned with the value that each customer perceives.
The FairPay architecture for valuing customer experiences
- Pre-set packaging -- are packages (bundles) locked-in in ahead of time, or as items are desired? Does the customer need to know in advance what content they will want, or how much of it?
- Pre-set usage levels -- does pricing ignore usage, or relate to pre-set usage tiers, or does it depend on other aspects of value and outcomes? What of customers with widely varying usage levels? Does all-you-can-eat pricing make any sense for the majority of users who are not "average?" If pricing is usage-based, are there reasonable discounts for volume (and perhaps price caps or rollovers to minimize customer risk)?
- Pre-set price schedules -- does the business have unilateral control of price schedules, or does the customer participate in determining price based on their perceptions of the value experience? How is ability to pay factored in, if at all?
(Even without giving customers any direct power over price schedules, sellers can reduce customer pricing risk, while adding little risk to themselves, especially for digital services. Some simple strategies for that relate to delayed pricing of bundles and usage plans that give customers more "optionality" by not forcing them to commit to specific bundles or usage levels in advance. As noted above, Tien argues for "smarter usage-based billing" for cable TV -- I have proposed just such a smarter, more adaptive, value-based model, which I call "post-bundling.")
Vendor Lifetime Value (VLV) -- the value the business provides to the customer over the lifetime of the relationship. Recurring businesses flourish when the customer looks to the business not for the best bargain right now, but as a reliable and trustworthy source of continuing VLV, The way to sustainable profit is to change the conversation from price to value, and from short-term to long-term.
Tien points out how "...IoT [the Internet of Things] allows you to rediscover your customers. It lets you learn what they really want. In fact, I would argue that the only true competitive advantage is your relationship with and knowledge of your customers." I have written about how IoT provides a new kind of data about value (an IoT Cloud of Value), and how FairPay's dialogs on value complement that with direct input from customers (and how that IoT data can help validate what customers say about value).
Much as I have done, Tien alludes to traditional modes of commerce: "Once upon a time, we used to know the people we bought from...we used to know the people we sold to, the neighbors in our village. All that knowledge got lost a long time ago...But it's coming back in a big way."
this more detailed view of the multi-layer, cyclic, repeated game structure of FairPay. It shows how the game serves as an adaptive value-discovery engine, providing an architecture for adaptively structuring products/services into tiers, and segmenting customers based on what they value, their willingness to pay, and their fairness.
By embedding these dialogs about value deeply into the customer journey, businesses can turn their everyday operations at each touchpoint into ongoing and continuous business experiments. This centers on price and value propositions, providing a base on which to become adaptively experimental about not only pricing and packaging, but also about product/service design. With detailed, realtime data about what customers do and do not value (potentially for each unit of product/service), the business becomes an adaptive engine for co-creating value with your customers in ways that can maximize Customer Lifetime Value (and Vendor Lifetime Value) across the fullest accessible market -- and as that market changes.
invisible handshake in which both partners in the relationship cooperate on sustainably creating value.
Even better, read my highly praised book: FairPay: Adaptively Win-Win Customer Relationships.