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Stop Building Barriers to Customer Relationships

Doug Ackerman

I'd argue that as a group, Apple consumers are amongst some of the most particular in their preferences.

However, Innovative Apple accessory vendor, StudioProper, have managed to develop the knack for meeting and exceeding these needs.

Apple themselves use Proper’s products in their headquarters in Cupertino.

Kate Spade NY asked Proper to design the iPad mounting system now used globally in their ‘SATURDAY’ branded stores.

They recently launched a range of hardware designed for PayPal to enhance their ability to sell a complete merchant solution with their Paypal Here reader.

And their crowning achievement: An intimate relationship with their end users. Who feed back into the whole product development process at every stage.

This week I caught up with Alon Tamir, StudioProper’s Founder, to find out exactly how they’ve managed to catch the attention of one of the world’s most discerning markets.

The lightbulb moment - Solving a brand new problem

Alon Tamir, founder of Studio Proper

Proper began with a single idea.

A lightbulb moment.

For a solution to a problem which had only just entered our lives.

Remember way back when the original iPad had just been released?

Remember how heavy it was?

Alon noticed that owners around the planet had begun using it to consume media, like music and movies.

Except, its weight meant that it was only comfortable to hold it for up to five minutes.

In one single moment, Alon realised that this completely new problem had a simple solution.

“I thought: ‘Why don’t we find a way to mount it to a wall so that people can enjoy without the downside of very painful wrists after a couple of days usage?’”

“That was was the seedling that gave birth to Proper.”

“And we’ve been on the path ever since to continue to improve the experience that people have with their Apple devices.”

“And providing the absolute best hardware to enable them to do it as well as possible.”

Matching Apple’s values of design excellence

Amazing Design

Apple consumers have deeply embedded values. And will quickly reject any product that does not meet Apple’s standards.

Especially if that product is meant to be used as an accessory to an Apple product.

Looking through StudioProper’s website, at the vast array of products they now display, you soon see a similar approach to design to Apple’s own.

Above all else, it’s the consistency which is impressive.

I ask Alon how he’s managed to meet these standards time and time again.

We uphold ourselves to the same level of commitment to really delivering the best.

By this he means commitment to the best material selection and design innovation.

And ultimately the best experience for customers.

It’s his belief that it’s this principle Apple really pin their success on.

They do things in a way that most other companies don’t afford the time to achieve. Whether it’s cost or actual development time.

“Apple the company and we feel the same way about ourselves, we’d rather make fewer products and release them less frequently.”

“But have each one be a truly superior market leader that delivers true innovation.”

“Than simply chasing number of products that we produce and number of products that we sell.”

Of course, sales matter to Alon. But his view is that to get into the headspace of the Apple consumer you’ve got to be singleminded in your approach.

They’re a very savvy bunch. Discerning and they can sniff out fake innovation very quickly.

But when they spot real, honest commitment to innovation, there’s a high level of loyalty.

Evolution over time of Proper’s values

Note: I couldn’t help but find an excuse to include this first commercial from Apple

When they first started they had one idea to improve just one specific experience. For people using this one specific device.

I can hear the fondness in Alon’s voice as he thinks back to the early days.

He describes that time as “Fly by the seat of your pants entrepreneurialism”.

They didn’t have clearly defined values. Just gut instinct to start with.

Values have developed over time.

And it’s much in evidence in the products they’ve launched since.

“Certainly using Apple as a benchmark and the Apply demographic as an audience sort of forced us to think about those things very early in the process.”

“But we’ve continued to develop that with specific relation to what we’re doing over time very consistently.”

“Every time we think about a new product or a problem that needs a product to resolve it. We think about how that whole Apple strategy and approach to design can be apparent in the outcome.”

“Each time we go and design a product it’s really a new learning opportunity for us as well.”

Getting into Apple’s HQ in Cupertino

Apple’s Cupertino HQ

Alon is clearly very proud of the products Proper produces. And for the special relationship he maintains with customers.

I wondered if there was one achievement he was most proud of.

I hardly have time to finish the sentence. There’s no doubt in his mind.

“Our products are used by Apple at their head office in Cupertino.”

“That outshines any other achievement in terms of feedback for myself and the team that speaks to us doing the right thing and designing things well.”

“I don’t think we could ask for anything better than for Apple to select our products for use in their holy house of design so to speak.”

He’s half chuckling as he explains. It’s obvious that this achievement is the pinnacle of what they could have hoped for.

In fact, it came about quite simply.

They had a distributor in USA who was contacted by Apple.

Apple was about to implement iPads in their staff canteen as the method by which staff pays for meals.

Apple asked this particular distributor whether he had access to any really superior products that would fit within the Apple building.

He quite quickly pushed Proper’s products forward. And they’ve been shipping them across ever since.

I wondered if that moment played out as you’d expect it to. With dramatic filmset lighting.

An eerie sense that the ringing phone was somehow important.

“I wish it was a phone call - but it was an email so there wasn’t much personality. Responding to a computer screen can leave you feeling quite stupid.”

“There’s no doubt though that it was a really exciting moment and it was an email that was very quickly forwarded to the rest of the team here and something we spent a lot of time talking about the next day.”

Alon suggests that there is a benchmark beyond that of customers buying your products.

The ultimate for a designer is for other designers you hold in incredibly high esteem to not just say ‘Yes, what you’re doing looks amazing’ but actually say ‘I choose to use what you’re doing and what you’re producing because it’s the best that I can find’.

“We always talk about, in the studio, how difficult it is for us as designers to go shopping and buy things.”

“Because unfortunately all we see are blaring faults.”

“That’s why it’s so amazing a company who is the design leader in the world to say ‘We don’t see those faults. We see something amazing and we’re choosing to use it.’”

Close customer relationships - an even bigger achievement

Proper’s iPhone mount for car windscreens

Getting products into Apple’s HQ, receiving their seal of approval for the quality of work is understandably at the top of the list.

But I guessed that they’d had other types of achievements to celebrate too.

They’ve had an impressive array of blog and media coverage. Such as Wired, Gizmodo & TechCrunch.

But their biggest achievement is not a single event. Or an award. It’s ongoing.

With immense pride Alon states that he’s proudest of the close relationship Proper has with their customers. And their ongoing loop of feedback.

In part it’s the continuous knowledge that their products are being enjoyed.

When customers email or call they speak with either Alon or one of the designers who are directly responsible for a product they’re using.

“Nothing really compares to the joy of talking to the end user.”

“Learning about how it’s changed or improved their life. And also talking to them about what they’d love to see in the future.”

The process that’s brought Proper closer to customers

I get the impression that none of the other achievements would matter to him if he had not succeeded in developing this special relationship with customers.

I wanted to uncover exactly how they’ve managed to get close to customers.

“We’ve done this quite logically by not putting barriers in place.”

“I see this all the time and it makes me shudder.”

“Entrepreneurs and manufacturers rush to outsource all of the processes that are essentially their customer touch points.”

“And certainly there are efficiencies that are gained by doing so. But I think that there is a real vulnerability in how quickly you can remove yourself from the customer.”

“And how much value falls through the cracks as a result.”

“For me I’d rather have perhaps a slightly lower level of efficiency. Which, mind you, we’ve found many other ways to resolve.”

“What we’re able to do is say ‘If you call, either the owner, the manager or one of the designers is going to answer the phone.”

“If you email one of those people will answer. If you use the live chat on our website, you’ll be chatting to either a designer or the business owner.’”

“And customers love that because in this day and age it’s all about putting barriers in place for efficiency. And making it as cold and disconnected an experience as possible.”

“And that’s not how we think about things.”

Removing all barriers

The wall of customer feedback

For a moment I was stunned. Alon’s description of what’s wrong with attitudes towards customers and customer service rings so true.

I asked him to describe exactly the process they use.

“It’s all very organic. We use our walls. And that may sound very old-school but the walls here at the studio are truly alive.”

“If a customer mentions something to someone who’s answered the phone at that given time, there’s a Post-it note that goes straight to the ideas wall.”

“Which we review several times a week.”

Ideas that bubble up to the surface from that wall then go into their project management system for further exploration, testing and prototyping.

And ultimately they end up in the finished product quite quickly.

They’ve developed what they call ‘Agile Hardware Product Development’

Built on the agile development principles you might be more familiar with in apps and software.

In short, they go through sprints of development incredibly rapidly. And that’s thanks to a lot of great relationships that they have in China.

This relationship gives them access to new materials and new rapid prototyping technologies.

Alon explains that the steps from customer phone call to Post-it note on the wall, to prototype to then being part of the product that gets delivered to customers can be as quick as 30 days.

“No-one that I’ve spoken to can even imagine being able to do that. Nor do they think it’s wise.”

“But it’s amazing to be able to email the customer back 30 days later and say ‘Remember that idea you gave us? Well we’ve got it ready to ship to you.’”

“If you think about the result of that, the compounding interest that that provides, not just to their desire to think of new great ideas for us.”

“But also their desire to tell their mates about the experience that they’ve had. And how great the products are as a result.”

“The cycle of value that we get and the customer gets is unmatched really. And there’s just no other way to do it.”

That one decision that they made early on - to stay as close as possible to the customer at every touchpoint - has had an enormous impact on their ability to create the best products in the industry.

He goes through some examples of this process in action:

  • The entire iPhone case / accessory range came as a result of customers using their iPad range wanting something similar for iPhone.
  • The headrest mount accessory for iPad was a very popular request and they’ve since launched a market leader.
  • And for iPhone they’ve recently announced a bike mount accessory that is the worlds first magnetic bike mount for iPhone.

All completely based around listening to what their customers are telling them they want.

Surprising uses for their products

Since their team has been receiving feedback from the get-go, I thought it likely that they’ve had a few surprises along the way.

“I think one of the broad interesting things that happens is we create a product with a very specific purpose in mind. Invariably we have very creative customers who just love hacking our product into other things.”

Alon describes how their products are being used by parents of children with disabilities.

Although the iPad has led to incredible improvements in communication. The children’s situation means they’re often not able to hold an iPad to communicate through it.

Parents have been able to use Proper’s products to mount iPads to wheelchairs in ways that make them infinitely more usable than before.

Alon’s voice dips as he describes to me the effect his products are having on people’s lives. It’s clear he’s touched by feedback he’s received.

“A lot of people throw that whole ‘Changing lives’ concept around. And it’s taken on somewhat of a cheap meaning. In the greater world of creating products.”

“But when you hear that it’s something that we’re actually doing. It’s amazing.”

Inspired by Tesla, Square and Apple

Tesla logo

What companies has Alon drawn inspiration from?

“We look up to Tesla, to Square and Apple being the obvious one.”

Tesla has brought an innovation forward that has been struggled with by other companies for decades.”

“And seemingly overnight they were able to put forward a viable option. That makes commercial sense and turned into a brilliant business.”

“With real advantages to things like the environment. And quality of life.”

Square took this old business that forced business owners to spend tens of thousands of dollars to implement a payment system, which is essentially hitting them with a major barrier to starting up their business.”

“Going back to Apple, the reason that they’re so amazing outside of the obvious reasons is because they’ve proven that their commitment to design is not going to alienate people, it’s actually going to create a business that succeeds for the long term.”

“And creates a customer audience that is loyal.”

“And they’ve shown that it’s ok to ignore what the competition are doing and what the competition are saying should be done.”

“It’s ok to remain doggedly focused on your view of innovation and not give up on that vision for the sake of saving time or keeping up with the Jones’s.”

“We love that. And it’s something that you don’t see enough people doing.”

He explains that he sees a lot of people spend infinite amounts of money and time and resources on competitor analysis.

Though he accepts that it’s important, he believes that if you funnelled all of that into really uncovering what it is that the customer wants, and deliver something that’s heads and shoulders above regardless of what everyone else is doing, it’s a far more important pursuit.

Vision for the future - Carry on solving customer needs

Proper’s latest release is a bike mount for the iPhone

The vision in terms of product and the niches that Alon and the team are looking towards is to continue creating consumer products in the way that they have.

But a new business opportunity that’s presented itself more recently for them, is the iPad as a replacement to the traditional point-of-sale concept.

It’s something that they’ve almost been dragged into by their customer base who’ve been using their products in places like cafes and other hospitality areas.

Purely because they were the best looking products.

But they are designed as consumer products. And sometimes can’t live up to the abuse that a business puts their products through.

So, their customers have really helped them realise that there’s a major opportunity for StudioProper as the leaders for Apple aesthetic hardware to provide a new solution to the iPad based payments industry.

On the consumer side of the business they’re looking into the fact that iPads and iPhones are the most used cameras in the world.

The hardware that enables people to do that well is probably not as resolved as it could be. Or not done as elegantly as it could be.

“The fact that we’ve developed a proprietary mounting system as the core of what we do - it does lend itself very well to what photographers, both amateur and pro, require in the varied environments they find themselves in.”

“Each environment requiring a quick adjustment in terms of the hardware they use to capture the right shot.”

Key Takeaways

It was brilliant to get a chance to speak with Alon.

The key things I took away from our conversation are:

  • Be available and add opportunities to ‘meet’ customers, be it by email, phone or otherwise.
  • Allow the entire team to be the customer service team.
  • Customers relish in the opportunity to talk to you, something that is so rarely available to them and is an instant differentiator.
  • Share feedback with the whole team to remind them of the importance of their role to the business and to customers
  • It’s easy to focus development on the right areas if you’ve developed a robust method for constantly dripping customer feedback into your thoughts.

Check out StudioProper’s incredible range of products to enhance your enjoyment of Apple products.

Also - say hi to Alon on Twitter!

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