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I originally wrote today’s post for Intradiem. It was published on their blog on September 17, 2015

Are you following the herd or defining your own path to success?

In business and in life, there’s this crazy notion of the herd mentality. What is it? According to Wikipedia: herd mentality, or mob mentality, describes how people are influenced by their peers to adopt certain behaviors, follow trends, and/or purchase items. This isn’t always a bad thing (e.g., think running away from a dangerous situation), but it certainly can be, especially when it results in erroneous decisions and other negative outcomes.

In business, when you’re trying to differentiate, when you’re trying to win and keep customers and employees, this mentality quickly commoditizes your business/product and, well, doesn’t really excite your customers or your employees. Employees can move in and out of employment from your company to your competitors, or customers can purchase your products or the next guy’s – and never feel or experience a difference. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter where they work or where they shop: one is the same as the next as the same as the next – and so on.

A few years ago, researchers at Leeds University did some research on herd mentality. Here’s how AdSavvy reports it:

Researchers at Leeds University, led by Prof Jens Krause, performed a series of experiments where volunteers were told to randomly walk around a large hall without talking to each other. A select few were then given more detailed instructions on where to walk. The scientists discovered that people end up blindly following one or two people who appear to know where they’re going.  

The published results showed that it only takes 5% of what the scientists called “informed individuals” to influence the direction of a crowd of around 200 people. The remaining 95% follow without even realizing it.

95% will follow the 5%! Wow!

But that’s not really a surprise. Think about the top 5% of companies when it comes to customer experience. Which brands are cited consistently? Which brands does everyone want to be like? Amazon, Zappos, Apple, Nordstrom, Starbucks, The Ritz-Carlton, Disney, Harley-Davidson, Nike, etc. Good for them! Bad for you! That experience works for them, for their culture and for their customers. Design your own culture and your own customer experience – based on what your employees and your customers want, respectively.

For those 95%, what happens to innovation? What happens to greatness, in general? What happens to a differentiated or delightful customer experience? That all goes away.

Seth Godin stated: You cannot be remarkable by following someone else who’s remarkable.

So, why then is there a herd mentality? Those in a crowd tend to do what others are doing because, if they are doing it, then it must be worthwhile doing or they wouldn’t be doing it. Right? Or the crowd might go along with what others are doing so as to not be ridiculed or mocked for not being in the know. Or it might just be the safe route to take. Or we don’t know what we’re supposed to do. Or we have no vision. Or we have no desire to differentiate. Or we like to go along to get along. Or we don’t want to make a bad or wrong decision. Or we have a fear of missing out. Or we are risk averse.

The problem with herd mentality is that we think we know what success looks like because we base it on the industry leaders – because they must be doing something right to be leading the pack. But just because it works for one doesn’t mean it works for others. Just because the Zappos culture and business model work for Zappos doesn’t mean they will work for others.

How do you know you’re part of the herd mentality? Consider how you’d answer the following questions.

  • Do you make decisions based on what others do?
  • Or do you always look for a better way, a better solution?
  • Are you listening to customers or just paying attention to competitors?
  • Do you have a fear of missing out on what others are doing and achieving?
  • Are you afraid to be different or to do something different?
  • Do you dwell on what your competition is doing?
  • Is your approach to designing products, services, and the customer experience fresh and innovative?
  • Or did you take the Zappos tour and decide to replicate their model? 
  • Are you looking for new and creative ways to meet customer needs or solve their problems?

How can companies stand out from the herd? Don’t they want to? What will help them win the war for talent? and for customers?

Not all experiences are created equal. When you design your customer experience strategy, good guidelines to live by include:

  1. Define and communicate your brand promise
  2. Develop a culture that fits your brand and what you stand for
  3. Understand your customers: who are they? what do they buy? what problems are they trying to solve? why do or don’t they buy?
  4. Define your moments of truth: think about your customer experience lifecycle and your various touchpoints and interactions
  5. Map your customers’ journeys
  6. Understand the marketplace: yes, be aware of competitors and what they’re doing, but don’t imitate
  7. Listen to your customers and prospects
  8. Define your customer experience: innovate, get creative, add value to the marketplace
  9. Hire the right employees for your brand experience
  10. Know your vision: stick to it
  11. Know your purpose: stick to it
  12. Know your value proposition: stick to it

Imitation is the death of innovation. When imitating, there’s no need for innovation, right? Last month, I wrote about four other voices to listen to in order to innovate. Listening to those four voices can not only help you drive innovation but also differentiation.

Take your inspiration from other industries, if you have to. Get motivated by what your competitors are doing, but don’t dwell on them. Competition drives innovation, and vice versa. And innovation drives success, simply because it allows you and your competitors to offer a variety of products to meet your customers’ needs. When that happens, the customer wins. And then you do, too.

If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking. -George S. Patton Jr.