Why speed matters

"Faster is better" applies almost everywhere, not just in the tech domain.

For the past several years I have been thinking about the role of speed in customer experience and business strategy. We live in an ever-accelerating world and the competitive terms of business are built upon achieving speed for many reasons. Here are just a few, from the obvious to the more speculative.

Speed is our default setting

Human beings live and operate in a constant state of now; we process extraordinary volumes of information in real time. The acceleration of technology is simply an effort to catch up to our zero-latency experience of being. Whenever given a choice, we will opt for a service that delivers response times as fast as our own nervous system.

The technology and processes around us are nowhere close to catching up — yet wherever they do, we see incredible value creation. Any information processing technology that moves from batch to “real-time” experiences a quantum leap in value, especially for those who adopt it first. Consider the arbitrage opportunity in financial systems capable of receiving market prices (or other data) in real time, or the efficiency of inventory management occurring in real time across the supply chain. All of the systems that surround and support modern life are accelerating into real-time systems.

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Speed is money saved

Walmart’s competitive advantage came from accelerating inventory information to near real-time throughout its supply chain. The result was incredible efficiency and huge cost savings that were the basis for its domination of the American landscape.

Speed is gratification delivered

When I worked in e-commerce in the mid ’90s, we quantified the obvious: faster page load times equaled more revenue. Our analytics showed that milliseconds spelled the difference between a sale and a lost customer.

Today we see the rise of flash drives in consumer electronics not because they are more reliable or durable (they are not) but largely because they wake your computer from sleep faster.

The magic of the new iPad 2 comes from its internal speed — it uses a flash drive — and speed via an external accessory: the Smart Cover automatically wakes the device and bypasses the estimated 3 seconds it takes to click and swipe.

Speed is loyalty earned

Money is a metaphor for our use of time. We pay attention and we spend time. Taking too much of a customer’s time is a form of theft that can cost your business. Conversely, if a product or service saves us time and costs less in attention we feel rewarded.

Speed equals certainty, delay equals doubt

I have heard it argued that Google won the search battle as much due to the speed of delivering results as the vaunted relevance of those results. They put their response times in milliseconds on every results page. In a social interaction, any pause before responding to a simple question ( “does this dress make me look big?”) qualifies the inevitable response (“absolutely not”) as less certain. My example is a stereotype and a bit whimsical, but it is emblematic of how we transfer these same emotions to our interactions with people and services. In other words, speed/responsiveness engenders feelings of trust, certainty and comfort.

Speed is a key facet of business strategy

All of this amounts to a simple edict: Consider speed as a dimension to your business strategy, not as a by-product of seeking efficiency but as a means of winning customers. I have used examples from the digital domain but the same premise applies to any offline experience — from hotel check-ins to the “out-of-box” experience of your new product. In more ways than one speed can deliver advantages beyond quality or efficiency. Speed can deliver intangibles like trust and loyalty.

Speed is a pain

Delivering on speed puts stress on an organization and, more importantly, on people. Our schedules get compressed, our deadlines tighten and the bar for competitive productivity keeps going up. While many lament the increasing pace of modern life, it is a futile complaint because it focuses on the effect rather than the cause of increasing speed. Over and over, we reward speed with our attention and with our business. As customers we demand speed from the products and services we purchase. The consequence is that as employees or business owners we find ourselves subordinated to an accelerating pace of work to deliver on that demand.

Speed is a choice we make

I believe that the terms of success for people in the world will increasingly reside with managing their own pace and flow of attention against the demands of speed. Those capable of strategically disconnecting and applying selective focus will be at an advantage in business or in life (hasn’t this always been the case?) because exercising foresight and judgment, two critical life skills, are not necessarily improved by speed. Quite the opposite.

But this isn’t the same as saying that we must slow down in business wholesale. As long as society rewards speed with equity, it will be the fundamental basis for competitive advantage and worth our attention.

Associated photo on index pages: Speedy Gonzales by blmurch, on Flickr


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