A long time ago, almost another lifetime it seems, I remember a customer describing his customers as the bottom of the food chain. That was well before CRM or anything like it existed. My customer’s point, beyond the obvious, was that in our professional lives, we exist for the customer and that the customer is not, or at least should not be, something to exploit in some mercantile economic model. Somewhere in the hubbub of the roaring ’90s and the backlash of the ’00 (pronounced uh-oh) years, we might have forgotten that key element of analog customer management.
The focus on customer-centricity, through CRM, social networking, communities and other advanced technologies is, perhaps, a nod to that sometimes overlooked attitude toward customers. In a more dollars-and-cents view, customer-centricity might also be viewed as smart innovation. In my work, I have so far avoided speaking about customer-centricity, per se, and focused more on what amounts to the same thing: making your company easier to do business with. But the link between customer-centricity and innovation is strong, nonetheless.
‘The call centers located in the region could not provide support services to the many customers that had purchased the company’s products for gifts.’
For decades, we have thought about innovation strictly along the lines of features and functions, and our competitive positions have rested on that. But any good marketing person will tell you that innovation that minimally affects product and focuses, instead, on the business processes that face the customer can be every bit as useful for—and have as much impact on—the bottom line. In markets where most competitors have roughly equal products and services, competition jumps to secondary or even tertiary features of the whole offering, and that means how a company deals with customers.
Time for unity
My reading of the marketplace tea leaves tells me that we are at such a point right now.
In an environment where innovation is focused on non-product issues, it might be easy for someone in IT to assume that “the marketing people can handle it,” but that is far from the case. If ever there was a need for IT and the front office to work together, that time is now. For example, marketing is still—and may be forever—dependent on its association with IT to affect results, and the new social technologies offer an opportunity for rich collaboration. Operating a community might not require the same level of IT support as a supply chain, but there are still numerous issues around databases and analytics that IT can help with from time to time.
The power of social networks and communities—and the need to ensure that they never go down—was brought home to me recently when I was writing a case study about a technology vendor. The short version goes like this: A vendor of communications equipment for home and home office use developed a community for customers, and they are invited to author service bulletins and post them on the community site. While most visitors to the community are simply users of the content, a small group develops service bulletins almost as a hobby. Within the community, there is status in how many bulletins an author generates, and the site tracks the number of hits a bulletin receives and ranks them. IT was certainly instrumental in helping product marketing to get the site up and to keep it running—just another one of that IT group’s many efforts.
Here’s where the story gets interesting. The company has an offshore call center located in the Pacific. On Christmas Eve 2006, an earthquake in the South Pacific led to a power outage and downed phone systems in the region. As a result, the call centers located in the region could not provide support services to the many customers that had purchased the company’s products for gifts or to set up new home networking systems during the holiday season.
As new and existing users discovered the call centers were down, they began searching the online community for information. Traffic on the support community site went up 50 percent overnight. The online community scaled to meet the needs of all the customers who visited the community during its crisis. The bandwidth and infrastructure held up as promised, and the vendor was able to minimize the effects of the earthquake on its support systems.
The vendor likes to say that the system saved Christmas, and for some people it probably did. This story always makes me think of my customer and the food chain. IT, marketing and customer service all played a part in putting the customer at the center of their company’s outreach, but without IT providing the infrastructure, the story would be very different.