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Surviving Peak Utility

When I was a child our family doctor operated a first come, first served, clinic without an appointment system. Some patients arrived three hours before the clinic was due to start to make sure they’d be seen first and a two-hour wait to see the doctor was not uncommon.

“Evening folks.” Dr. Mac said, as he walked through the waiting room to his office, where he would smoke a quick cigarette before seeing the first patient. True story! In those days the family doctor was akin to a god and people accepted the wait and inconvenience without complaint.
Dr. Mac lived and worked in a world with fewer doctors and no prescribing pharmacists, nurse practitioners or alternative medicine, so his services (no matter how average) were highly valued.

Today, in the Western world where patients have endless treatment choices and are better informed about their health, things look very different for family doctors. Patients are no longer happy to wait an hour for a brief consultation with the doctor when they can get more convenient access and treatment, or a much better experience elsewhere. What was once viewed as an invaluable professional service is now almost seen as a standard utility. The reality is that people don’t just want to the doctor to make them better. They want to feel better. And they are choosing alternatives (sometimes more expensive ones) that deliver that feeling.

The same story is playing out across every industry from transport to travel, health to hospitality. Monopolies are being eroded as alternative services that provide better experiences and give people what they want, when and how they want it are thriving.

Dr. Mac would not survive today, not because minor illnesses or their treatment have changed all that much in forty years, but because people’s expectations about what’s worth seeking out, waiting and paying for have changed beyond all recognition. We have reached ‘peak utility’—we are living at a time when average products and standard services are becoming less valuable by the day. Our customer’s and user’s expectations have shifted and if we want our businesses to survive and thrive we have no alternative but to move with them.

Image by Jason Parks.