When new phrases enter the lexicon of business, they usually begin as bold visions of change – but often timidly shrink to shopping lists. It’s too easy to check the boxes of acquisition and think that a vision has been fulfilled, when the same wrong things are merely being done with shiny new tools.
It’s almost always wrong to say, ‘It’s different this time’, but the phrase of the year for 2016 is ‘The Age of the Customer’ – and it’s different because the customers are truly in charge, and they will be harsh judges of whether reality lives up to hype.
What has put the customer in charge? The three protections that incumbent business leaders traditionally enjoyed have now all but evaporated:
- Distance: Customers once found it difficult to seek out a better experience if that meant going farther from home. Now they can discover and engage with a new provider wherever the Internet reaches.
- Capital: Facing the costly infrastructure and established supply chains of market leaders, a startup used to be challenged to scale out its competing vision of a superior experience. Mainstream cloud services now lower that barrier to entry, both in physical manufacturing at contract facilities and in customer engagement using providers such as Salesforce and Amazon.
- Communication: Finally, traditional broadcast marketing (whether print or electronic) once gave dominant providers a choke-hold on the conversations that define markets—more monologues than real discussions—so that customers often had only superficial rather than fundamental choice. Viral discovery by customer communities can now expand any market: an Uber or an Airbnb can thereby redraw the playing field of an entire industry at startling speed.
Going forward, business success must happen in this world rather than above it: the customer is not on the outside as mere recipient of messages and products and services, but is a co-creator of the community that increasingly will define a brand. For every element of the business, this demands change in how things are done.
Managing mobile relationships
In sales, for example, the mobile customer (there are now roughly as many active cell phone accounts in the world as there are living human beings) can not be promptly and vigorously engaged by a desk-bound sales team. When one hears the phrase, ‘Mobile CRM’, it might sound like “a mobile version of CRM as we’ve always known it”: try to hear that phrase re-parenthesized into (Mobile Customer) (Relationship Management), in a recognition that the task has been changed by the environment.
Sales reps must not be merely connected, but engaged, with prospects on the outside and also with sales team members and subject matter experts on the inside. They must have:
- Data-driven insight into usage of previously sold products, as foundation for discussion of value.
- Current knowledge of service ticket status, as preparation for discussion of support.
- Real-time feeds of breaking news about the prospect they’re about to visit, and that prospect’s competitors and other concerns, to enable a conversation about partnership in problem solving rather than just a product sales pitch
Mobile technology also empowers the demonstrations, simulations, and real-time configure/price/quotations that close a bigger deal more quickly.
Marketing to the ‘sell-resistant’
Getting to the point where selling can begin will continue to be the task of marketing, and that task has never been harder as customers arm themselves against traditional advertising techniques. In the age of the ad blocker, the foot in the door will not gain entry; rather, the celebration of success outside the door must get the customer to come out and see what’s going on.
Building the army of customer ambassadors, and inspiring it with crafted events (think Felix Baumgartner’s Red Bull-sponsored jump from space), will create an environment in which the customer is actually eager to have a personalized conversation – but then the challenge becomes the tailoring of those conversations, across all channels, at scale.
Automation becomes intelligence
Enabling these transformations of sales/service and marketing demands the deployment of massive data collection from an Internet of Things; the adoption of analytic platforms and tools that invite discovery and collaboration; and the incorporation of machine-learning techniques to accelerate, and make more consistent, the organization’s arrival at new best practices.
None of these are visions of incremental improvement. The mobile device is not a shrunken web browser: it is as different a creative medium as a short story or haiku is different from a novel or an epic poem. The sales team management practices of the connected world are not measured by number of cold calls made, but by precision delivery of exactly the right offer—at the right time—to a customer whose behavior has been accurately interpreted as a gauge of the right kind of interest.
The customer who buys more, not because of being “sold” better but rather of being served more effectively, is the winner in this new age.