The rate of hyper-change and innovation that is taking place in the current digitally enabled marketplace makes it very difficult to sustain a competitive advantage – even if you are offering the latest ‘Internet of Everything’ (IOE) solution. The skilful blending of traditional sales and online channels to market – that are backed up by an efficient contact centre and CRM platform, have now been relegated to ‘table stakes’ status. Therefore, new ways to get an advantage are needed and the best option is to become more customer intimate. It’s only when a customer’s attention is ‘hooked’ and common ground is built, will a prospect be open to engaging with a vendor they feel they can trust. Most customers who experience integrity and behaviours that says, “you are valued” and “we care”, will be happy to give you their business – providing they understand and believe your value proposition. However, building a customer centric operation is not achieved solely by putting together a team of go-getters with high IQ’s (which of course helps), but more through the strategic application of EQ. The execution of a customer centricity mind-set, combined with what I call front-loading your value-add, is what will enable a vendor to enter the top 5% of its market niche going forward. 

The critical success factor for a business to secure and retain its most profitable customers will be the potency of their staff’s skill in the practice of empathy during every customer engagement. This means all customer facing staff genuinely and consistently stepping into the emotional shoes of each customer in order to serve them better – in effect, operating in the customer’s comfort zone instead of their own.  The big challenge for today’s business professional is to recognize and accept that the old ‘vendor centricity’ approaches are no longer relevant in a marketplace where the customer demands to be served on their terms. Without some level of personal relationship, there is a diminished chance of earning forgiveness, or a second chance, when something is not delivered as promised. Being able to estimate someone’s personality type enables you to more easily understand how to meet their expectations during a sale, in fixing a problem, or in planning to delight them with some value-add.

At a practical personal level, anyone who is looking to improve their job or career prospects needs to recognize that a high proficiency in social media or simply having a degree – even an MBA, will no longer provide you with the level of differentiation required in today’s marketplace. Those mainly IQ centric attributes are still important, but the critical factor needed to achieve consistent business succeed is advance EQ (emotional intelligence) skills. It is of course very important to have the most effective communication tools and customer management systems available, but once connected, you must interact with customers on their terms more than your own. In other words, you have to adapt to your customer’s personality type and engage in a way that responds to their individual agenda and motivators.

At a corporate level, the uniqueness factor that delivers a competitive advantage is the degree to which customers perceive that their business is genuinely appreciated. Today’s consumer expects to be delighted with their purchase – because that’s what the brochure and marketing pitches promise, so they will no longer tolerate receiving anything less than a high level of service and support. The wealth of choice offered by an increasing number of quality global vendors in practically every sector, has dramatically reduced the customer’s tolerance for poor vendor attitudes. In effect, the customer is tired of having to do most of the work in resolving situations where things are not delivered as promised. With so many alternatives and incentives offered by hungry competitors today, the customer’s attitude towards vendors is increasingly moving to “you do it my way, or I go elsewhere”. Most successful providers of products and services understand this, but it takes much more than vision statements on the corporate website to convince customers that you value them. Think about your own less than satisfactory business encounters, how did you feel and what was your preferred course of action? Suffer on, or change your supplier?

Some authorities contend that an ability to accomplish one-on-one empathy is the central skill of ‘customer centricity’. Transitioning a business culture into an authentic customer centric operation – where the customer’s agenda takes priority over your own, is of comparable significance to what occurred when business transitioned from the ‘agricultural age’ to the ‘industrial age’ in the early 1820’s. At that point, the workplace completed a gradual evolution from the emphasis on having an abundance of low-cost manual labour to get work done, to one which leveraged systemized processes and automation to achieving wealth and prosperity. This continued into the subsequent information age, but workplace transformations were still driven and controlled by the vendor (or merchant). That has all changed in the digital age where the customer now sets the criteria for success and vendors must comply in order to earn the right to be considered.

It’s only when customers are consistently providing unsolicited testimonials about your superior service that you know you’re approaching the top 10% in your market category. In the past, such testimonials were mostly an occasional incident that resulted from some structured marketing or QA process, but it was a rare event to discover a delighted customer complimenting your service in the media. Today, incidents of poor service and unfulfilled promises get high visibility on social media – much more so than accolades for good performance. Social media is emerging as the primary educator of vendor performance and a business with ambitions to dominate its niche must pro-actively manage their customer’s perception. Failing to do so will result in brand erosion because substandard performance has nowhere to hide anymore. However, the best insurance is to actually over-deliver on brand promises because there is no longer any place for contrived or piece-meal customer service, as the nature of social media will quickly ferret-out any shenanigans or misrepresentations.

Authentic relationships take time to mature, and it’s often a trial and error path that is interwoven with pain and misunderstanding. Rarely do you see people build a trusting relationship within the short windows of opportunity that seem to characterize digital commerce these days. However, with the re-emphasis on customer centricity, there is a growing need for ways to accelerate the level of trust building that was gradually established during the slower paced business environment of the 20th Century. Intuitive relationship building skills were commonplace back then but have unfortunately been submerged due to an over emphasis on technology as the main facilitator of business differentiation. That differentiation was valid until everyone suddenly had access to the same relatively low-cost digital resources and tools, so there are few real technology advantages to be unearthed any more. The de-emphasizing of face-to-face interaction between vendor and customer also diluted the role of personalization within an organization’s culture and so the new crop of young business people are not intuitively tuned into its value. The beauty of the digital age is that anyone can open a global business, but the downside is that viable competitors are springing up on a daily basis and can quickly undercut your price or service advantage in a myriad of ways. So demonstrating some uniqueness is vital.

Any perception that you are offering a ‘me too’ product or service won’t cut it with digitally savvy customers anymore. Even a unique product that is low cost, of a high quality and scarce is of limited value if it can’t get found on the first two pages of a Google search. Without positive reviews by satisfied customers in social media, or a reasonable following of authentic business commentators, your competitive position is severely handicapped. In order to stand out from the crowd some ‘digital marketers’ try to shock their audience into stopping their online search in order to seduce attention to their product, but consumers quickly get wise to hype, shallow promises and self-serving approaches. Therefore, a business has to send out compelling and attractive signals that speak directly to a buyer’s emotional needs, and back it up with behaviours that point to likely win-win outcomes. There are of course vendors who are looking for short-term meaningless relationships (i.e. ‘I win, you lose’), but this book is not speaking to that market strategy.

Today’s business professional, or indeed anyone for that matter who needs to build better relationships with others, must have well developed EQ competencies. My definition of having a high EQ is “a heightened ability to identify, discern and optimize our emotions when interacting with others”. Without EQ awareness and the ability to pro-actively manage our emotions in various situations, we have reduced ability to understand people’s feelings, perspectives and needs. Further, a deeper understanding of how other people are motivated and how they perceive value, helps us build greater trust, credibility and collaboration with them such that genuine win-win outcomes can be achieved. Customer centricity is not something that can be switched on or off as the mood or financial circumstances dictate, it’s like any relationship – if you get complacent or disrespectful, you will soon become unwanted.

Many businesses will be happy to bypass this EQ step if they are currently gaining acceptable market share and profitable returns from their efforts. However, if that situation starts to change in the next year or two, it may be too late to effect the required business reengineering and cultural changes as the focus would likely be on survival and playing catch-up. A first mover technology advantage is a rarity today, so vendors really have few options to differentiate other than executing a customer centricity strategy. Failing to do so will result in an uphill battle to keep pace with competitors who are targeting your most valuable customers, delighting them and holding onto them. It costs up to 7 times more to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one, so from purely financial reasons you get a higher ROI from delighting your customers.  

In a manner similar to events one hundred years ago when a small country on the edge of Europe gained independence through people power and persistence, many of the once privileged few who dictated events up to the digital age have subsequently become either non-competitive or obsolete. General Motors was once regarded as one of the most successful firms in the world, but its share of the US market fell from 62.6 to 19.8 percent between 1980 and 2009, and in 2009 the firm went bankrupt. The simple expiation was that Toyota under-cut pricing and was more efficient due to leveraging technology and complementary quality practices. However, the essence of Toyota’s success was due to giving the customer the product that was needed. Today, most vendors can offer a low cost, high quality product so that approach won’t provide much differentiation. Instead, the focus must be on translating vision statements for a customer centric organization into tactical actions that consistently surpass customer expectations and provide real value add.

As was the case in Ireland, and other colonies who subsequently gained independence from an autocratic empire, the digital marketplace has established a new democratic governance model – and by extension, new success criteria that emphasises empathy, delight, respect and integrity. So, in the words of poet W.B. Yeats, “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born” (“September 1916”) 

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