One Thing Product Leaders Can Learn From the Romans

Ryan den Rooijen
Ryan den Rooijen

In ancient Rome, victorious military leaders would be celebrated upon their return with a grand procession called a triumph. Yet even in the midst of all their success, the chariot driver would whisper "memento mori" into the victor's ear: "remember that you have to die." I wonder how businesses might fare if they embraced a similar tradition, but with a corporate twist.

While most acknowledge that digital transformation and customer-centricity are necessities in today's world, it is fascinating to observe the slow pace of adoption. Numerous studies have been conducted that dissect the how and why, often finding that legacy technology or cultural challenges are to blame.

However, I believe there is an additional factor that we frequently overlook. The more senior or specialised one becomes, the more likely one is to lose sight of the immediate needs of the customer. Compounded by groupthink, this can lead to features and services that are completely divorced from customer priorities.

A prime example was the launch of Google's smart glasses. While an innovative concept, it failed to resonate with customers due to privacy concerns and a lack of practical use cases. Yet, when I worked at Google, there was a tremendous amount of excitement around the technology and a pervasive conviction that customers would eagerly adopt the product once released.

We can also consider the launch of New Coke in 1985. Coca-Cola's attempt to revamp their classic formula was met with a backlash from consumers, resulting in a swift return to the previous recipe. While internally convinced by their new formula, Coca-Cola failed to appreciate consumers' attachment to the original.  

This arch is not Roman, nor is it very old. Photo by Photo by Bastien Nvs.

The impact of these types of missteps is unmistakable. Not only do they waste time and resources, but they also erode customer trust and brand equity. After all, when you present yourself as an organisation that understands the customer, you would expect this to be reflected in more than just the marketing. It needs to be evident in every aspect of the business, including products and services.

So, what are organisations to do to prevent these types of costly missteps? Take a leaf from the ancient Romans and remind our leaders that they too are consumers – and should probably reflect on that! This might sound basic, but it has a profound effect on how investments are prioritised and approved.

Here is an example: when presented with two proposals – one to improve the speed of a website or app and another to develop a novel feature – most leaders will opt for the latter. After all, novelty wins you plaudits and prizes, while page speed optimisation is one of the dullest things to talk about on one's resume.

Now, let us consider this from the consumer's perspective. A difference in loading time from 3 seconds to 1 second makes a massive difference in your experience, shifting not only your perception but also vastly increasing your propensity to make purchases. According to Cloudflare, a 2-second increase in page load time can more than halve your conversion rate.

I have said it before and I will say it again: at the end of the day, what makes you money is often not what wins you awards. Yet this is easy to forget when you are distanced from your customer or led by your ego. Therefore, perhaps we should task someone to walk behind our executives, forever whispering in their ear: "memento es emptor." Or: "remember, you are the customer."

– Ryan

Cover photo by Faith Crabtree.

Ecommerce & Omnichannel

Ryan den Rooijen

Chief Strategy Officer of Appsbroker CTS, the leading Google-dedicated consultancy. Formerly Chief Ecom & Data Officer.