This summer holiday, I went to Italy with my family. On the way from the wine hills of Piedmont to Lake Como, we made a stopover in Turin. There we visited the National Car Museum, actually drawn by the fabulous offering of Italian sports cars.
At the start of the exhibition, we walked through the history of the automotive industry and came upon perhaps one of the most important cars in history: the Ford Model T. What makes the Model T unique is that it was the first car to be built according to assembly line principles. This allowed large numbers of cars to be built in a relatively short time and sold to the masses. One drawback was that you could choose a model T in any colour of the rainbow, so long as it was black.
The founder of the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford, once said of his customers and his cars: “Customers don’t know what they want. If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”.
And that is the Model T Paradox for business services. On the one hand, business service providers who have developed propositions for the big market (B2B) that “roll off the assembly line” and on the other hand business service providers who have very specific customised propositions for a niche market.
The paradox concerns the first category. All the propositions in the legal profession, accountancy and banking, for instance, reach many customers because of their simplicity and scalability. At the same time, scalability is the biggest threat. AI (artificial intelligence) is going to bring about an “assembly line revolution” in generic and scalable services. The days when a lawyer can send out an invoice for simple standard contracts are numbered. As are the days when an accountant simply checks the books and annual accounts.
What customers of business service providers really need are lawyers, notaries, accountants, bankers and related professionals who stop offering Model T services and, in the spirit of Henry Ford, start working with their customers in a healthy and critical way. By entering into dialogue, by understanding their businesses and by challenging them intellectually and questioning them. By explaining what strategic impact their customers’ ambitions will have on their business operations within their areas of expertise. Then they will become trusted advisers and add value and tell their customers that they don’t need faster horses but custom-built cars.