Forrester has a very simple way of dividing up the last hundred or so years of commerce. You start at what it terms the ‘Age of Manufacturing’ where large industrial companies, such as Ford and GE, made their names. The thirty years between 1960 to 1990 was the Age of Distribution when globally connected transportation systems, the jet engine and advances in logistics made household names of UPS and Toyota. Then, from 1990 to 2010 the Age of Information saw the likes of Amazon and Google become huge successes through globally connected computers.
Now power has shifted to the Age of the Customer, in which the big winners are likely to come from a pool of companies including Facebook, Apple and Best Buy. This era has seen companies go from start-up to billion-dollar-float in less time than it takes for a child to go through secondary school. Often, these new companies come equipped with new business models and priorities to match, which aim to disrupt the traditional customer-brand relationship. This has led to a dramatic change in the C-suite’s priorities, as brands now need to be not just focused on customers but actually built around them and their needs. To survive, they need to fundamentally shift their perspective, from being customer-conscious to customer-centric.
Speaking recently in London David Cooperstein, VP and Research Director at Forrester, warned CMOs and CIOs that "people have changed, their behaviour has changed, so have their expectations and how they find you. It's no longer a case of you bringing people to you through advertising and marketing, there are many routes, such as social, where they will find you and you have to ensure you offer a seamless, consistent service."
This requires brands to rethink how they interact with customers and build in real time data that is contextualised to the channel through which a consumer is interacting with a brand. To influence consumers, brands have to be where they are and where they want to be engaged using content placed on popular appropriate sites and becoming an intrinsic part of conversations consumers are having online in forums and social media.
Implications for the both the CMO and the CIO are clear. The pressure is on to make sure interactions lead to real time data that can inform decisions in the business from the board right down to the proverbial shop floor. The view of the customer cannot be siloed. They must always get the same high level, seamless service whether they are face to face, using an app, a mobile web site or on a PC or telephone.
It’s not just a case of investment or having the right technology in place, though. The key to success is engaging with and empowering customers with the aim of encouraging them to select your products and services.
This is easier said than done, however. Here are five questions all companies need to ask themselves on this journey:
It may sound a little odd, but this is the central question every brand has to ask itself in the digital era. Does it serve a purpose, does it answer a question or a need the customer has?
If you think just providing good service or manufacturing a leading product is enough, consider this: more than four in five mobile users would prefer a brand be useful rather than interesting¹.
So, are you useful? Have you found a way to take a click or two out of the buying process, like Amazon? Have you made searching for and comparing multiple items simpler? If not, be warned: someone else will be.
Customers are the same people whether they’re on your website on a laptop, a branded mobile app, reading your latest brochure or dealing with you face-to-face. So why would they want to be treated differently?
Instead, they should have their interactions with your brand immediately available on whichever format they happen to be accessing it. This can include previous orders, ratings of services and products they have given, recommendations from peers of similar products, updates on loyalty points and whatever else they may wish to access.
By collating data gleaned from web, mobile and direct contact, brands not only stand to make more sales, but engender loyalty from customers who love to be recognised and served better.
Taking an ‘outside-in approach’ is quite a trend topic at the moment, but what it effectively means is listening. It can sound a little easier than it actually is because to listen, you not only need to have ears, you also need to encourage customers to speak up and get hints of what they are saying when they are not in front of you.
As ever, data will reveal all. The simplest alerts that attention in a particular area is required will come from abandoned shopping carts and dips in sales for particular items, perhaps accompanied by rivals reporting success in lines where you are underperforming.
Social media and customer service agents are good indications of where a brand is getting it right and wrong. They should be complemented with feedback forms and questionnaires designed to glean from customers what you are getting right and what you are getting wrong.
Mystery shop your own organisation and you’ll find what it is like to deal with you.
Do you ask for the same information twice? Is your content well targeted and easy to navigate?
If you cannot deliver a product or service, do you let customers know when you can and do you offer alternatives? Do you make recommendations? Are the additional services offered to increase basket size?
Ultimately, do you make it easy to turn an enquiry into a purchase through a pleasant experience?
If you do, stop right now because if there is one thing the digital age has shown, it is that today’s customers are more fickle than ever. If you do fail to build your organisation around them, they will defect to someone else who has. Technological innovations have made the friction of changing brands lower than ever and brand loyalty has suffered as a result.
The harsh reality is that you are unlikely to be as important in a customer’s social or work life as you think, so you need to keep working at engendering loyalty. Brands can be changed at the click of a button. Trust has to be earned but, above all, worked on and retained by constantly focusing a business around the customer.
In the Age of Information, those who gathered and controlled data prospered. In the Age of the Customer, it is no longer a question of what you’ve got – more than ever before, it is how you use it that counts.