I don't know about you, but finding a special birthday present for someone close to me is often something I struggle with. I'm not usually in favour of the 'cash in an envelope/book token' style of gift, at least not for an important birthday. That suggests to me a lack of imagination and forethought, although they do say it’s the thought that counts.So recently when my sister was approaching a big birthday (I know enough not to mention which one), I was keen to find her something a little special. I’d previously stumbled across a website called Shoes of Prey whilst conducting some research on Australian small businesses and their growth models.
Shoes of Prey is a fascinating and extremely innovative organisation, which makes bespoke shoes for women all over the world, whilst leveraging the reach and economies of scale that the internet provides.
As a normal bloke, I had waited until the last possible moment to buy a gift and still have it arrive on time for my sister’s birthday. More in hope than expectation, I sent an email to the Shoes of Prey office in Sydney explaining my predicament and asking if there was anyway they could speed up the delivery of one of their beautiful gift cards.
Less than two hours later I received a reply from Susie in the Shoes of Prey team, telling me she would take care of it personally, put the gift card in an express envelope and I should have it first thing in the morning. Great customer service I thought to myself at the time. Then Susie sent me a follow-up email, telling me to let my sister know she'd be happy to help her with any questions she might have, when she started designing her bespoke shoes. This interaction epitomised for me the changing nature of customer care in today’s retail environment: from the old style one-to-many monologue through standard advertising channels, to the new one-to-one dialogue through email, online communities and web-chat forums.
In the not too distant past, poor customer service was commonplace; in fact it was often the norm. As consumers we were used to waiting patiently in queues at the bank, sitting on hold for hours on end and having companies take our business for granted. In recent years, this paradigm has begun to shift. Nowadays we all have access to competitive information and if we choose, can switch our mobile phone provider, our electricity supplier or even our home lender without a second thought. Suddenly customer care has gone from an optional extra to a standard necessity for companies of all sizes.
In the past few years, many large Australian companies such as Optus, Commonwealth Bank and Energy Australia have made customer care and intimacy a number one priority. They have spent huge amounts of time, energy and resources developing an integrated view of their customers, to ensure that they’re really looking after their number one commodity ... us.
Jerry Gregoire, CIO of Dell Computers expressed it thus, "The customer experience is the next competitive battleground".
Now the game is changing again, merely knowing who we are and what we might have purchased from you in the past is no longer sufficient. Consumers are demanding significantly more, we want:
- Real time access to our information
- We want you to pre-empt our needs and have systems already in place to service them
- Increasingly, particularly in the retail space, we want innovation and cutting edge design
- We also want a feeling that we are part of something great and worthwhile
- Furthermore we’re demanding a sense of wonder and excitement, as we interact with your particular good or service.
If all of that wasn't enough, we expect you to achieve all of this with authenticity and originality. We can smell a fake, a try hard, a wannabe at 50 paces and it's likely you could do your brand more harm than good by a poor attempt at understanding this new consumer landscape.
It can be a confusing and even frightening new reality for large and small businesses alike. How to please your shareholders and your customers at the same time, how to be innovative without introducing unnecessary risk into the business, how to embrace new technology and new media, whilst remaining true to your core business principles. So where does that leave us?
Whether you are a high-street retailer, a chain of hardware stores or a global IT company, you’re faced with a choice. Continue with the business as usual approach and watch your customers and margins gradually dwindle overtime. Or embrace this new reality, innovate, listen to what your customers are saying, watch how they are behaving, be open to new ideas and don't avoid or ignore new technologies and opportunities as they present themselves.
Above all be authentic, take every opportunity to develop a dialogue with your customers and you may find that this new business paradigm is the answer to your prayers too.
So what do you think ... will customer intimacy and customer engagement become the deciding factor between those companies that sink and those that swim in this new retail reality?