Today’s organizations are experiencing a “customer evolution,” and the rules of the game have changed for good. The on-demand economy, with complete access to information through mobile devices, and expectations for near real-time, 24/7 delivery of products and services has given the customer more power and influence than ever before.
Our interviews with 400 global executives, compiled into a report in partnership with Forbes Insights, indicated significant change when it comes to the mindsets and practices regarding customers. Exploring this notion of The New Customer Courtship builds on the ideas in Part 1, Leading Change When Business is Not As Usual, and Part 2, Forming Partnerships and Fostering Culture.
The punchline is straightforward: leaders must look beyond simply fulfilling a customer’s needs to fostering “customer oneness”—a connectedness where everything begins and ends with the customer. This is not so straightforward to implement, however. Achieving “customer oneness” means identifying the many hardwired customer practices in an organization and redesigning everything with the customer in mind. One of the most powerful ways to differentiate and compete is nurturing this kind of holistic customer experience.
There are several ways to break down the changes happening. It starts with how informed customers have become, accessing mobile technology any time of day and night to vet products and services. A quick search on a company reveals the sentiment of previous customers, which can make or break a sale before the customer has even engaged with the business.
Empowered with knowledge and access to others’ experiences, customers have the ability to demand more. More often than not, a company is not competing with just its peer group in the domain of customer experience, but with the leading-edge companies doing it right, especially digitally. What modern customer will wait even one week for shipping, or tolerate an app that crashes, or dive eagerly into buying a product with a two-star rating?
Along with increased knowledge, the idea of customer loyalty is on the way out. Only 26% of the leaders surveyed believed customers to be loyal, with 62% saying the concept of loyalty is “almost” or “fully” obsolete—this was especially true from executives in larger enterprises. The faster executives realize this change, the more innovation they can apply to shifting their companies from loyalty programs to customer experience initiatives. Failing to shift means losing access to the best and most profitable customers.
The increasing use of technology to manage customer experience is another change. It’s an area still in massive transition with potential pitfalls to consider. When it comes to the customer, technology may not be the only answer, and trying to automate human interactions to decrease cost, or speed transaction times, could lead to a poor experience that reverberates negatively for customer and company. In fact, a recent WSJ article (paywall) “Everyone Hates Customer Service—This Is Why” outlines new uses of artificial intelligence to analyze customer behavior and predict the threshold of a customer leaving. The technology matches the skills of customer service agents with the customer issue at just the right moment to save the relationship. It’s a fine line to dance, as it’s possible to “meet the customer need” and not leave the person with a great experience.
In contrast, many of the surveyed executives shared anecdotes pointing to the need for “increased humanity” in their company’s customer interactions. One innovative executive shared how creating incredible relationships with customers starts with an internal focus on employees—employees after all are on the front-line with the customer and have the relationships. Emphasizing people, and leveraging technology to support and enhance those human interactions, is emerging as a critical strategy for many companies. A people-first, technology-supported approach is worth consideration.
Technology remains important, of course, as companies must still knit together the total experience for the customer, addressing each touchpoint with the customer in mind. This is the essence of “customer oneness”—bringing the customer into the foreground for every interaction and creating steps and solutions in that context. Only 32% of the executives surveyed said their companies offered omni-channel shopping, critical to ensuring the consistent experience. And only 28% were satisfied with their current use of digital technology to influence customers at critical touchpoints. There is room to grow here.
Predominant actions focused on “personalized marketing,” with 65% of the executives pursuing initiatives to better segment and address specific customer messages and needs—a growing method for achieving oneness with customers. Many brands are moving away from mass-marketing channels of TV and radio, and investing more in how the modern customer consumes marketing messages—on their laptops, phones, and tablets. And when it comes to the tremendously influential Millennials market, the message must be tuned in a different way, with personal, meaningful touch.
In our view, even as technology continues to improve and refine, enabling new customer insights and where to focus, the human touch remains paramount. Ultimately, customers are people, and the majority of people are drawn to experiences designed with them in mind, with them at the center. Today’s leaders can take their organizations to a new place by applying the “customer oneness” mindset to all aspects of their customers. Leaders who make sure they are evolving to match the customer evolution will find great success.