Customer Service


What Customers Expect: To Get Value and Be Valued

At the CRM Evolution show in New York on Tuesday, Brian Vellmure, the principal and founder of Initium Technology, gave a talk on the future of customer relationships.

He peered well into the future, envisioning an era when the Internet anticipates customer needs and delivers advice automatically. That can only happen when companies develop sufficient knowledge about their customers — and foster the trust of those customers — to make recommendations.

Those two concepts are often at odds with one other today, so business is going to have to figure out ways to foster tighter relationships without appearing too invasive. But, said Brian, this could happen — if the business manifested six things to the customer:

  • Know “me” (the customer)
  • Be competent
  • Be trustworthy
  • Be likable
  • Be relevant
  • Be available

Do Your Core Business Right

That seems like a tall order, and you can see why this is a vision of the future several years out as opposed to the future in 2012. Few companies are really good at all six; sadly, many fail the “be competent” test.

Brian also asked what customers wanted from the businesses they patronize. In my mind, that provided a direct link from today’s reality to the future he’s talking about.

Here it is, as simply as I can put it: Customers want value and to be valued.

Pretty simple. Value means they want products and services that work, that are priced fairly, that offer reasonable support when needed and that meet all the expectations of the customer for what they are.

Being valued means they want to feel like the company they do business with is likable, understands their needs, treats them with respect even in conflict situations, and is willing to engage in conversations.

Now, correlate this back to the six attributes Brian mentioned. Value simply falls into the “be competent” bucket, which is a pretty important bucket; most people buy primarily on price and on functionality. If you can’t deliver what you promise, it doesn’t matter how nice you are, how engaged you are in social media, or how quickly you respond.

However, if you’re doing your core business right, then the other five items start to play an increasingly important role as you try to retain customers and create word of mouth that can attract new ones.

Get Customer-Centricity Right

CRM is all about “knowing” customers on at least a rudimentary level — collecting contact information, behavior information and a historical knowledge of the interactions they have had with your business. Really “knowing” them, however, requires more commitment and thought; that’s where social CRM starts to play a role. You know customers better when you understand what they say about you and when you engage directly with them — as long as you have a way to record that information.

Trustworthiness and likability are real-world attributes that translate directly into what you’re doing in social media. You know how to behave in the real world (I hope) and your goal should not be just to close deals. The goal should be to close deals and prepare the way for many more deals in the future by building relationships that last.

Relevance means that you need to provide customers with the information that they want and the information that’s important to them — not just information that relates to your company and the things you’re selling to them, but information that can help them do their business better. If you’re seen as a peer rather than as simply a seller, then the other aspects of relationship building are far easier.

Finally, there’s the idea of being available. Customers expect near real-time responses today; if you can’t provide that, shoot for something reasonable. This is being driven by social media and the ability of people to connect and communicate extremely rapidly — if they can do it with their friends around the world, why can’t they do it with your business?

The reality is that businesses — especially small ones — are constrained by resources and can’t be real-time responders, but they can set real-world expectations.

When you look at it that way, those six attributes are not signifiers of a distant, Skynet-like future of consumers being told what they want before they know it. They’re the attributes of a company that’s created a successful customer-centric approach to business and understands how to build relationships over the customer lifecycle. In short, a company that knows how to provide value and to make the customer feel valued.

They may not be easy to reach but these are attributes you should be striving for today. If you focus on becoming good at them, the future you’re hoping for will be closer than you may think it is.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at the CRM Outsiders. He has been a technology journalist for 17 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he's not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he's wearing his airplane geek hat; he's written three books on World War II aviation.

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