Adapt to Today’s Empowered Customers Without Turning Your Employees Against You


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Today’s customers are different. They require—no, demand—transparency into a company so that they can make intelligent choices. They no longer seem interested in how good your products or services are; they know they can easily find a better, faster, cheaper version via the web somewhere. They demand that your company provide them with an exceptional experience.

As Business Week, as mainstream a publication as exists, said, "Now the game is to create wonderful experiences for consumers around whatever is being sold. It’s the experience that counts not the product" (Dec. 19, 2005).

And today’s businesses are different, too. They … uh … well, let’s see. They … hmmmm. Oh, wait a minute. They aren’t different.

And that’s a problem. With the exception of a few Starbucks-like companies, businesses aren’t particularly innovative and haven’t altered their old logic, creating a serious disconnect between their customers and them.

How bad is it? Forrester Group’s 2005 study on financial services, Usability Flaws on Financial Services Sites, found 85 percent of the sites run by businesses responsible for your money failed to meet the 21st century customer’s requirements for a valued experience. The study rated each site on value, navigation, presentation and trust. The minimum passing score was 25, and superb was 50. The average score for this very important industry was 5.7.

Disconnect? Big time.

But, you say, my company has a CRM program initiative. We’re working on managing the customer relationships. We have stakeholders and a program office. We are looking at PPT (people, processes and technology or endless PowerPoint slides). We are doing the "right" things for CRM.

"Right" for CRM when? Five years ago, before the new generations of customers ascended?

New demands
This new set of customers is relentlessly demanding innovation, new business models and transparency. The Cluetrain Manifesto (2001, by Christopher Locke et. al) puts it well: "Markets … want access to your corporate information, to your plans and strategies, your best thinking, your genuine knowledge."

While as a business owner or member of management or true blue corporate loyalist, you might find this intrusive, put on your consumer hat for a minute. Don’t you get outraged when you buy something that becomes obsolete or is discontinued a month later? This isn’t a matter of "truth in advertising," anymore. It’s a matter of an experience with a company that diminishes or enhances a trusted relationship. The 21st century customer is an empowered and volatile person who can instantly get the word of your duplicity or trust out to tens of thousands via the web, not just tens by way of tonsils.

The way you internally organize your CRM program has to be innovative and flexible because of this new breed. If you have a deeply embedded sales and/or marketing culture, you probably have a culture that presumes for the customer but does not truly listen to the customer. And chances are your compensation—and your processes—don’t reflect the changed voice of the customer, either.

But changing this kind of culture is tricky because those same empowered consumers on the other side of the fence are your employees on this side. And you need them to support your CRM programs. They become different creatures on the corporate side of the fence. Thus, even though changes you make are in the customers’ interest, your employees may not like to see their salary structure changed or be told to do things differently. They have routines spilling into their personal lives that depend on work being the way it is now.

If what drives their commissions or bonuses changes, they see that change as affecting standard of living or their children’s future, whether it truly will or not. In such a case, a full-blown CRM initiative might be bad because the culture can’t handle the change without imploding the company. In 2004, IDC found that the prime reason for CRM failures was the failure of the users to adapt to the program. This finding has been confirmed by countless other studies.

Listening and flexibility
So how do you meet the demands of the new-generation customer without taking your business down? Listen to the "voice of customer-centered innovation and flexibility." It’s an apt name, if somewhat unwieldy.

Here’s an example. Executives at a retail client of mine understood that their sales culture was so deeply engrained they could never follow the "standard" CRM methods or approaches. So they innovated. Seven management minions who were considered to have the most customer-centered view of the company were chosen to form the Customer Value Review Committee (CVRC), with a mission to bring the voice of the customer into the thinking of the company. Departmental representation didn’t matter.

It was a soft approach.

Most importantly, the CVRC mapped the interactions of the customer at every single point of their store experience. To do that, we created tools—triggering (not guiding) questions—to get the customers to come forth with their experiences at the store at each interaction point and the expectations they had of the experience. The customers were chosen based on segmentation that was important to the committee: successful stores that broke the rules or followed the rules; high volume or low volume stores.

Two of my non-negotiable requirements were that management conduct its own interviews with the customers and that the customers were compensated well for their time. I also insisted that the CEO publicly endorse the committee to give it the political strength it needed. He is a true visionary guy, so he did.

The customer mapping produced shocking results. What had been presumed to be important to the customer often turned out to be unimportant. Weak points in the store interactions were not the ones that were expected. For example, registration as the customer walked into the store had been seen as both a seminal event and the basis for the customer’s first impression. Shattered Myth 1: Customers barely remembered that they had registered. Shattered Myth 2: The first thing they really saw was the vast impressive selection of products, not the registration table. All of which had a big impact on how the stores do their business.

The program has been so successful that the CEO now asked that it be applied in a pilot to the model stores program. That and a communications plan for the "softening" of the culture are next. All this was accomplished without PPT or CRM formality but always with the voice of this new, different 21st century customer in mind.

Good stuff, for the customer or business person in you.

Paul Greenberg
The 56 Group, LLC
Paul Greenberg, the president of the 56 Group, LLC, is the author of the best-selling CRM at the Speed of Light: Essential Customer Strategies for the 21st Century, 3rd edition. Greenberg is co-chairman of Rutgers University's CRM Research Center and executive vice president of the CRM Association. His blog PGreenblog won both of the only two awards ever given to CRM blogs.


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