It’s a difficult and crowded market place out there. Customers are more and more demanding and have unprecedented access to information about your industry and your competitors via the Internet. In fact, a recent study showed 12% of the US population refer to social media before making a purchase. In many industries it’s easy and cost-free for customers to switch supplier if they’re not satisfied, which raises the stakes of getting it right: On time, first time.
I recently saw an interesting video on the ‘Internet Evolution’ website where Michael McClurg describes how midsize businesses can surmount these challenges by giving their customers access to more information. He talked about enabling customers to see the progress of their order as it progresses, and in doing so giving customers a sense of empowerment.
I’m sure we’ve all experienced situations where we’re waiting for a delayed order, and we have no idea when it’s going to arrive. There may be an extremely good reason for its delay, but we’re completely unaware. It feels like we’re inside an informational vacuum. When the product finally does arrive we resolve never to use that company again!
Providing customers with information to manage their expectations is nothing new, but Michael’s point resonated with me. In the past it may have been seen as “best practice” that only large companies or new and nimble online companies could implement. This is no longer the case; customers are expecting this transparency for small and mid-size companies too, whether they have ordered their products online or offline. What’s more, customers want to access this information on their terms, wherever and whenever is convenient to them.
This creates a particular challenge for successful mid-size companies. Organisations that may have grown over many years, with complex business processes that have evolved rather than been designed. How can organisations adapt and avoid becoming “dinosaur” companies that are side-lined and left behind?
Start with the process and data
Customer empowerment starts from within your organisation. It may require a review or even a complete overhaul of your business processes. Work with your team to determine:
- Which of our business processes actually add value from the customer’s perspective?
- Is there a better way of doing things?
- How can we keep the customer more informed?
- Does our customer want information “pushed” to them (via SMS/e-mail) or do they want to “pull” it from us (by logging into our website)?
- How can we ensure the customer always knows what is going on, and knows exactly who to contact if they have a query?
- Are we collecting, storing and exposing the right data?
- How can we change our business processes to address any of the points raised above?
The philosophies and tools of lean and systems thinking can help a great deal here. Start with specifying value from the customer’s perspective, and make sure everything you do is as aligned to their needs as possible. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try/measure/improve. And of course, be sure to ask your customers what they want and value (although I’m sure this goes without saying).
It produces benefits that you might not expect…
The beauty of more customer empowerment is that it yields benefits beyond what you might first expect. In addition to increased customer satisfaction, you’re likely to achieve greater efficiencies:
- Less complaints (so less time spent handling complaints)
- Less calls/e-mails/faxes chasing orders
- Less “comfort calls” (e.g. “I think I’ve ordered xyz online, but I just wanted to make sure it went through…”) as the customer can login and see for themselves
- Greater efficiency as if the customer does need to contact you, they know exactly who to call
In summary, providing your customers with more information (in a way that is meaningful for them) creates empowerment. This increases customer satisfaction, and also provides you with efficiency benefits that you might not have expected. In the past, this may have seemed like an imperative only for nimble start-ups and cash-rich multinationals—however in today’s environment it has a direct application to the mid-market too. Customer empowerment will help keep your organisation competitive, efficient and “in the game”!
What are your experiences with customer empowerment? Does your organisation share enough information with its customers? I’d love to hear your views – please add a comment below.
 Knowledge Networks—CNR study, “The Faces of Social Media” (June 2011) quoted in “A smarter approach to CRM: an IBM perspective” p4. (October 2011)
This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter plan