I spent part of last week listening to presentations about the customer of the future, and of course it made me think. As usual, I didn’t think in a straight line.
As you’ve heard from me before, customers are still the human beings that walked out of the ice age 10,000 years ago or even the Cro-Magnons of 35,000 years ago. It takes geologic time to observe changes in a species, and those time frames are much too short, so I generally brush aside suggestions that customers are different today or that they will be in my lifetime.
However, it is very certain that we all behave differently today when we enter the marketplace than we did five, 10 or especially 20 years ago. Behavior is a cultural and social adaptation, and while it is true that we behave differently, it is largely because we have better tools, like mobile devices and analytics, to use as customers.
That is not a small point; it means we shouldn’t have to go back to the drawing board on customers. We only need to revisit behavioral strategies and ask how new technologies have affected behavior or will affect it in the future.
All of this suggested to me that assuming the customer of the future is somehow different can obscure the real need, which is to consider how the vendor of the future addresses customers who just happen to have better tools. In other words, what does the vendor of the future look like? I think that’s a better question.
It’s a better question for all the reasons above but also because when we speak about customers, the discussion is much more nuanced. It is much harder to conclude anything about the commonalities between the customer of the future in retail, pharmaceuticals and insurance, just to pick three widely divergent verticals. However, if we turn the discussion around and ask about the vendor of the future, we can see more clearly.
The sea change we need to wrap our heads around comes from understanding the shift in communications. For a long time, vendors did the talking and customers primarily listened, but now the roles have flipped. Since information is much more accessible today, we see statistics like the one about customers performing more than half of the buying cycle without recourse to vendors.
So how does a vendor act within this new reality? I am not satisfied with prescriptions that leverage technology to speed up the ways a vendor can get into the grill of a customer.
This all naturally led me to formulate a short list of attributes that I think any vendor should work to develop regardless of vertical.
- Sensing. The ability to sense what customers think and need on an aggregate basis so that vendors can respond with products, processes and policies that keep them in line with their customers. Sensing happens through communities, data gathering and analytics, and it is a key attribute but far from the whole story.
- Participating. Good sensing will enable a vendor to participate in moments that matter or moments of truth for customers. Vendor presence is more important than ever in such areas as subscriptions.
- Feeling empathy. Being able to understand individuals in a moment of truth. The need for empathy has risen significantly lately in part because so many of our interactions no longer happen in a face-to-face context. Also, empathy is a less pervasive need when dealing with single transactions. In today’s world of subscriptions in which vendors have to continuously work to earn business and not simply to win it, empathy is a continuous requirement.
- Taking action across and through barriers of time and space. This is critical. Time refers to both being in the moment and being able to act asynchronously. Space refers to face-to-face brick-and-mortar interactions and virtual space across various media, some in real time, some asynchronously. You can boil this one down to channels, but importantly, before channels you need to understand journeys.
- Building journeys. A lot comes together under this rubric. Understanding the journey gives us a good understanding of when, what and where to do our sensing and apply empathy through action. Understanding journeys gives us the ability to anticipate customers and thus to be ready for their requests.
- Being humane. Journeys also help us to understand the flow of a relationship such that we can recognize when to push and when to back off.
- Welcoming. I need a better word but tomorrow’s vendor has to be approachable and easy to work with, especially where automation is concerned. This is applicable to both the customer and employee experiences. This list won’t do you much good if your offerings are not consumable, usable and comprehensible.
On the Offensive
So I like this list. It simplifies the vendor’s mission and demystifies the job ahead in a way that approaching from the customer side makes less clear. It also places the onus to act more clearly on the vendor.
Focusing on the customer can sometimes relegate a vendor to a more passive role of reacting. Since the game is a vendor’s to lose, it’s best to be on the offensive. This list gives insight into how that can be done.