Forget everything you knew about sales and marketing. Today, the customer is in the driver’s seat of digital transformation.
Henry Ford may have mastered the art of building affordable cars for the masses, but his oft misquoted quip that ‘a customer can have a car painted any color he wants as long as it’s black’ would have fallen flat in today’s customer-centric digital world.
Like Ford’s early customers, most consumers had little choice until recently but to accept the off-the-shelf products that were offered to them, or forego a purchase altogether. Choice was a luxury that only the wealthy could afford, typically by ordering custom-made or bespoke products and services.
But the Internet, the democratization of information and empowerment of consumers has changed all that. Today’s business leaders and their companies ignore customers at their peril. Consumers in particular are in the driving seat of digital business transformation and ultimately they will decide which companies thrive, survive or die.
Changing the Rules
Digital technologies may have changed the game, but consumers have changed the rules. Consumers (and B2B customers) today are smart, sophisticated and well informed and they use social media extensively. According to the Keller Fay Group, there are over 2.4bn brand-related conversations online every day.
They may still shop their favorite brands in traditional bricks-and-mortar stores and turn the pages of paper catalogues, but now they also use connected digital devices including tablets and smartphones to research the market and make their choices from home, in the office or while they are travelling.
Research suggests that on average 57 percent of the buying process is completed before a customer ever contacts a sales rep or steps inside a retail store.
Among B2B buyers, nearly 75 percent now say that buying from a website is more convenient than buying from a sales representative and 93 percent say that they prefer buying online rather than from a salesperson when they’ve decided what to buy. (One reason why SAP launched the online SAP Store earlier this year.)
Indeed Forrester Research forecasts that 1 million US B2B salespeople will lose their jobs to self-service eCommerce by the year 2020. “B2B buyers now favor do-it-yourself online options for researching and buying products and services, and they are demanding that B2B sellers fully enable those digital paths to purchase,” Forrester’s Andy Hoar wrote in a blog entitled ‘The death of a (B2B) Salesman‘ published earlier this year.
No Linear Path
Like business customers, there is no ‘one size fits all’ or single linear path for consumers in a digital world. Each consumer defines their own route and demands a personalized experience anytime, anywhere and on any device – and they expect to be able to move from one digital device to another seamlessly. Underscoring this, 86 percent of consumers say they are willing to pay more for a better customer experience, according to research published in the Amex Global Barometer.
Not unreasonably, consumers expect that all the digital content served up to them will be contextually relevant (don’t show me snowboards when it is 95F outside) and immediate (I want reviews and recommendations while I’m shopping, not after I have checked out). Most have a low tolerance for poor user interfaces, slow connections and software bugs and they do not want to retype information they have already provided or to repeat information to a sales rep or call center operator.
Perhaps most importantly consumers expect companies to mask the technical complexity behind a simple user interface and link their front office systems with ecommerce engines and back-office operations. While I, like most consumers, am concerned about privacy and information security, I don’t mind sharing information with companies, provided they are transparent about how my information will be used, protect and/or anonymize that information and use it to deliver me a better service.
Unfortunately old (legacy) tools and ‘point solutions’ like sales force automation packages and customer relationship management (CRM) cannot deliver all (or even most) of the features that a digital business needs to be able to deliver to today’s demanding customers – in large part because they are engineered from the perspective of the supplier and not the customer.
New front office technology tools, including the three SAP hybris products launched this week, flip this old model on its head and put the customer front-and-center. This has several key advantages. First, it bridges the gap between front and back office systems enabling companies to offer a simple, seamless customer experience. Second, it enables companies to personalize their offerings and treat every customer to a ‘bespoke’ experience.
For example, if I am shopping for a new pair of shoes, I would like to log on once, move from device to device and feel confident that if and when I walk into a physical shop, the store assistants will automatically recognize me as particular customer (using my smartphone perhaps for identification) and be able to help me complete my purchase. Based upon my profile and instant analysis of my browsing activity inside the store, I might also be offered a special deal on a new pair of trainers, a voucher for discount on Fitbit training band and a raincoat because it’s fall where I live and the forecast is wet.
This isn’t fantasy. This is the new model of contextual customer engagement and its coming very soon. It doesn’t just apply to retail either. Putting the customer at the center of digital transformation is or will change everything from finance and banking to healthcare and government.
Those companies that embrace this change will be able to seize this opportunity to digitally disrupt the markets they serve, differentiate their brands, and engage consumers in entirely new ways – just as Henry Ford did with his Model T automobile.
Footnote: During its first years of production from 1908 to 1913, the Model T was actually produced in four colors – grey, green, blue, and red before Ford standardized on black because it reportedly dried faster.
Top image: Shutterstock