Some truths bear repeating and this is certainly one. A number of events over the past week inspired me to write this post.
First some context.
Discovering the value chain between customer and company is what successful business people do every day. They fill endless whiteboards, figuring out who they are, what their customers value and how to deepen this connection.
Pre the real-time web, this process was predominantly company centric. The center of the marketing bullseye was the company or product, with circles of distribution, partnerships and campaigns pushing the customer touch points out to the store or marketplace or channel.
This was a loud world of exported interrupt messages. It was difficult and expensive to manage.
The game has changed; so have the rules. The customer, empowered by the breadth of purchasing choices and the power of personal referrals, is at the center of the commercial world and the marketing bullseye. Winning, of course, is still measured the same way, but the path to get there is strikingly new and uncharted.
I’m frequently in discussions around social media and commerce and regardless of context, the crux is always connected to this power shift. Once you acknowledge that the nexus of power has jumped from the company to the customer, all the permutations and the logistical noise around social tools fall into place. Referral-based selling, community dynamics, customer support morphed into sales, and social commerce all stem back to this core shift of control and value.
Realistically, does the customer control the company and dictate pricing?
Not overtly of course but pragmatically and directionally, most certainly. With unlimited access to products though an endless array of channels, the customer has the choice to buy wherever and from whomever they want, to tell their friends to buy or not, and publish their impressions and recommendations to the world. Social nets are the amplifiers for both customer satisfaction and discontent.
If you want to build and grow your business, whether you are a start-up or a global brand, you need to pay attention and pay homage to your customer as key. You need to hand them the microphone. And you need to listen hard.
The benefits embracing this are significant when they work. The best example of doing this right from a customer centric support perspective is Apple.
One of the jokes in the blogs is that Apple makes crappy products but has the best support on the planet. I disagree but it makes a point.
I think Apple makes life changing products but their support in store, on the phone on and online is part of the product experience and unchallenged as the best. We like to buy their products, line up to buy new ones at premium prices. Stopping at the Apple store to resolve an issue and shop is part of life. Apple customers are their marketers, their sales force and their brand ambassadors.
One of the rules of marketing is that you can never stop communicating the most important facts. The realities of a customer-centric world prove this well.
A few examples.
A comment string on AVC.com about the new Gary Vaynerchuk book the other day found me in debate with Phil Sugar, a sharp marketing and business veteran who was quite vehement that companies who cared about their customers always provided a call in number with a human being to talk to.
Yes, it’s great to call the company, not so much if it’s a call center in Asia with an hour wait time and untrained employees. This is not about phones. Nor social tools to communicate. We don’t need to call the company; we need support and a system that respects the consumer pre and post sales.
You need an ecosystem of product and support that starts with a customer-centric premise. With this as the golden rule, not only do product and support exist on the same continuum, but also customer support and the customers themselves become the sales force for the company at their Apple-style best.
Phil and I were agreeing at the core but from different vantage points.
Donna White, a top tier and category-defining executive recruiter on the same comment string, reported that at a tech pitch event in Los Angeles she attended, there were a handful of startups whose disruptive strategy was by “being user/customer-centric”. Who would have thought that viewing the world as customer driven was disruptive? Proves that what you thought everyone understood simply isn’t and still new in many places.
And the next day at Media Summit 2011 in New York , media execs from Verizon, Starz and HBO on a panel argued about whether the pendulum of control in TV today was swinging toward content owners or distribution.
I asked whether the customer wasn’t in control? Whether the population growing up with webTV not cable, who never had a landline and just want to buy and watch what they want whenever they want to didn’t hold the true baton of power?
Their answers were “Yes, but…”. Big media certainly loves their fans and provides them a social playground of Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. But their model is stuck in the past and they can’t see past it. Social, for them, is a campaign, an ameliorator and a pacifier. Eventually this lack of a customer centric strategy will backfire.
The publication of Gary Vaynerchuk’s new book “The Thank You Economy” corresponds perfectly with this idea. Not only is his book a manifesto of the seismic shift—amongst other things–towards a customer-centric society, but Gary himself, his story and his business success is a living, breathing exemplar of this idea.
Business is complex. Understanding the social web is inspiring but dauntingly interconnected and overwhelming at times. And building a communications platform for your customers is non trivial.
But if you push the complexity aside, rise above the tactics and objections and start with the value chain of customer not company as key, things fall into place.
How you communicate. How you sell. How you determine pricing and support. Think customer first and you have a point of view to make decisions against .
There’s no guarantee for business success. Building community. Empowering your customer. All this is hard. Even when everything is perfect, there is luck and magic that can’t be planned for nor bought nor bet on.
But I can’t imagine any successful business starting today that doesn’t embrace this reality of a customer-centric world. Nor any successful company looking for expansion that doesn’t surface their customers themselves as the key to growth. Putting the value on what you provide to your customers and letting them speak for themselves, is no guarantee, but the best bet on the future of your company that you can make.