‘Connect to the many, and engage to the individual’

Putting the customer first… has always been dear to my heart. But vendors, these days, are running out of ammo with which to woo the customer. All they can do is forge a unique, long-term relationship with the customer. The mechanism to establish that dreamed-of client relationship is analogous to how people like things on Facebook. What are the nuts and bolts of an ideal relationship? Well, it’s all about showing empathy, about being genuine and sincere. Not to mention… ‘interaction’.

And this mechanism persists in many places. Local business, on a micro scale. Me and my local baker’s shop. My local baker and I. My baker knows me, and I know my baker. It’s the good old ‘customer 1.0-interaction’.

With companies getting bigger, however, and the rise of advertising and mass media (newspapers, radio & TV) that 1.0-interaction has become a rarity. The world has switched to an environment where ‘one-to-many’-marketing predominates. The company name or the brand name began to dominate marketing communication. Which heralded the era of the ‘influenced customer 2.0’. Each vendor sends out its promotional messages and these rain down on the customer. Each vendor tries, of course, to influence the customer’s purchase behavior. Marketing techniques are developed so as to make our banner rise above the din of all the others. Be it with bells and whistles, eye-catching packaging and a pretty ‘bow’ on top.  This was the era of the mass media. We called it ‘communication’, but it was essentially ‘transmitting’. Loudly or quietly, shouting, whispering, … but always leading the customer down a certain path.

And, in those transmissions, we spoke of the features and functions of our product, and if that no longer made the customer sit up, then we focused on ‘solutions’ and emotions, as in ‘Freude am Fahren (BMW’s ‘Sheer Driving Pleasure’)’. Mass communication became fine-tuned psychologically. And segmented. Showbizz personalities came on the scene. But companies just kept on ‘sending’ and customers carried on ‘receiving’. The closest we got to the customer was ‘customer-focused’. ‘Focused’ yes, but the vendor’s thinking was still egocentric. Instead of having customers’ needs front of mind, we still thought in terms of our own processes and procedures.

The era of that one-to-many-marketing is over – companies need to wake up to this fact. The advent of the iPhone and the omnipresent mobile internet has changed everything. The paradigm has shifted entirely. From now on, the customer calls the shots. Steve Jobs was mistaken when he said ‘The iPhone is like having your life in your pocket’. No, today it’s the customer who controls his own life. The smartphone rules, OK? The ‘empowered customer 3.0’ is in the ascendency.

Today’s customer is the ‘nectar-rich flower’, where companies – like bumble bees – start to swarm around. The customer chooses and likes you… or doesn’t, for a short while… or for ages. Loyalty is only real if the ‘love affair’ continues. The era is that of ‘many-to-one’. I, personally, don’t like the term ‘social media’. A more accurate term is ‘communication media’.

The new-age customer is still a bit bewildered. He (or she) has to get used to the newly acquired power. The customer drowns in the multitude of choices and he constantly seeks a product that fits his ‘I know best’ mantra.  The vendors are on a ‘journey’ too, as too many of them are still stuck in ‘one-to-many’ mode and aren’t managing to offer as many different ‘individual’ solutions as there are customers. Consumers are breathless, want the ‘bells and whistles’ to stop. And the vendors are fatigued too.

There is a way out of this restless imbalance. The pointers to that are everywhere you look in our hyper-connected world.

Customers are interacting with one another, relying on their fellow ‘tribesmen’ and are able to do things independently. Customers are looking for greater business transparency, sincerity, speed and shortcuts and, for that, rely increasingly on a peer-to-peer network of like-minded people. Customers are no longer just ‘customers’, today’s customers are also the ‘Sales and Marketing’ and even more: the ‘Infrastructure’. Look how Lego, Uber, Airbnb or Facebook are using their customers as brand ambassadors and marketers. It’s ‘many-to-many’-marketing. Or as I call it: ‘customer interaction 4.0’.  Customer and Vendor land on the retail platforms as equal partners.

But how will companies find peace in this ‘customer-steered’ world? The only way to regain inner peace is through one-on-one communication. This means that vendors have to cast off their corporate behavior and de-brand themselves. New business platforms are catering to this trend. They are cutting out surplus middlemen. They cater to the customer’s unmet needs. They make the whole process of choosing simple and transparent. They are facilitating the power of the network. Tesla became a giant in automotive without any form of mass marketing. Tesla’s success is based solely on the strength of the network and of the tribe that supports this brand.

Customers want to see vendors as a human being. And what vendors need to do is treat every customer individually. This means that all the expectations of that customer are known to you beforehand. The fact that these are different, for each customer, is where the challenge lies. And then they differ again, for each new context.

You can only pull this off if you use technology to know your customer through and through. You collect data on the customer, process it and then use it, proactively, at the right moment in the right circumstances and via the right channels. And it’s the customer who chooses that channel. Automate processes if you’re then able to avoid mistakes and negative vibes from the customer. And, on top of that, deploy your salespeople to engender positive emotional feelings and passion.  Think in terms of people-to-people relationships. Know your customer inside out, but don’t become predictable. Keep on surprising him.  Don’t ever become dull. There should always be a Wow-element. Only then can you engage in a direct, 1-on-1 relationship. That, in short, is ‘customer-interaction 5.0’.

The mission statement for vendors is: ‘Connect to the many, and engage to the individual.’ Emotion and technology come together. The big challenge here is that vendors have to deliver on 5.0, without neglecting the underlying interactions: facilitate the power of the network (4.0), that the vendor’s world revolves around the customer and that nothing will be foisted on the customer (3.0). And, yes, even utilising a mass-transmitter (2.0) if that seems useful, but always in line with customer expectations in the 5.0-environment.

How do I tackle this, in practice, as an office- and people manager? What is hype? What is reality? What are the main drivers behind the new business models? That’s precisely what I want to tackle in my next book ‘Managers – The Day After Tomorrow’.

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