Have you taken a serious look at your customer relationships recently? If not, now would be a good time.
Recently, IBM polled more than 1500 CEOs around the globe on a variety of topics, including customer relationships. When asked how they saw customer expectations changing over the next five years, 82 percent said they expect customers to demand a better understanding of their needs. Not ask for, but demand. Seventy percent said their customers would expect new and different services.
So it’s not surprising that business leaders are putting customer intimacy higher on their list of strategic priorities. In fact, 88 percent of those polled identified “getting closer to the customer” as the most important factor in realizing their strategies over the next five years.
Keep in mind that these are not consultants, keynote speakers or “thought leaders” making these statements (although we do make valuable contributions every now and then ourselves). These are leaders of highly successful multinational organizations saying, “Here’s what we need to do in order to achieve our strategic goals.”
Like many things in business, reinventing customer relationships is much easier said than done. Based on what they learned in their survey, IBM recommends three specific strategies:
1) Make customers your #1 priority. Every employee in the company needs to be responsible for customer satisfaction. Not just those who work directly with the customer, but every employee. Make it easy for customers to do business with you. And make sure you know (don’t guess) what really motivates them to buy your product or service.
2) Use two-way communication to strengthen customer relationships. The old days of sending out a customer satisfaction survey once a year are long gone. Make customers part of your team. Find new ways to communicate with them (i.e. social media) and new ways to leverage what they tell you. Make doing business with you as transparent as possible.
3) Turn customer data into customer information. Develop new ways of gathering, analyzing and using the information customers provide about how you can help solve their problems and achieve their goals. Make sure this information gets to everyone in your organization who needs it.
These strategies seem right on target. But I would strongly recommend one critical action step before implementing any new customer relationship initiatives – unlearning what you think you already know about customer relationships.
Our assumptions, beliefs and “thought bubbles” about the way things work are so deeply ingrained that we often don’t realize how strongly they affect our thinking and decision-making processes. Until we identify and discard outdated ideas, attitudes and assumptions about customer relationships, any efforts to move forward with new approaches will feel like walking up a down escalator. Reinventing customer relationships starts with challenging everything we think we know about them.
This involves asking questions like: When was the last time we thoroughly reviewed our customer relationships? What has changed in our world since then? What has changed in our customers’ world since then? What assumptions are we making about our customers that may no longer be true? What assumptions are we making about how to deliver value to our customers that no longer may be true?
How do we define customer value? What do our customers really buy from us (and why)? If we started this business over from scratch, what would we do differently to build and sustain strong customer relationships?
So first get very clear on what you are currently thinking, and then define what your new customer relationships need to look like. Next, get to work on reinventing them.
One final finding from the IBM survey: organizations that excel at extracting previously undiscovered insights from vast amounts of customer information will enjoy a huge advantage in deepening existing connections and creating new relationships. So if you believe (as 1500 CEOs around the globe do) that customer relationships represent a key component to strategic success, it ultimately comes down to three critical tasks:
- Engaging your customers in new ways to increase loyalty and generate new demand and revenue sources.
- Getting customers more involved in your product and service development processes.
- Learning how to turn customer data into information and using it to empower employees to deliver more value to your customers.
As the survey indicated, today’s customers aren’t asking to be treated differently. They’re demanding it. How are you reinventing yourself and your business to meet that demand?