The customer is your new boss

Paul Howes, Partner, Head of Wealth Management
Paul Howes,Partner in Charge,
Customer Brand & Marketing Advisory

Now, I’m conscious this can sound like old news. After all, hasn’t the customer long reigned as king? Let’s be honest: not really.

In most sectors, the customer has traditionally occupied a pretty weak bargaining position – weak on knowledge, weak on access to information, weak on options.

As a result, most organisations have not considered them first-order priorities. When companies have devised their forward-looking business plans they have often drawn them up in isolation from considerations about the impact on customers.

The customer experience – their journey – has generally been tacked on at the end and explored through management tools like Net Promoter Scores.

But that era is assuredly over. The customer today has grown genuinely strong – and expectant.

They have knowledge and easy access to relevant information. They have abundant choice. And they have the capacity to move fast.

Global disruptors like Uber and Airbnb are driving consumer expectations. The likes of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google – the FANGs – now have bite across myriad industries. They influence what is expected from government, from financial services, and from almost everything else.

So in 2019, when you hear a leader say the customer is their boss, there’s a much better chance than ever before that they truly mean it. But if we accept this truth, it necessitates fundamental change.

Organisations heading into 2019 will know a huge part of this has to be digital transformation. But digital is an enabler, not an outcome, and there is a trap of falling into a tech-first approach. Successful outcomes put the customer at the centre and respond to a human need.

Again I suspect this will not come as news to most. After all, “put customers at the centre” or “be customer-centric” are not uncommon refrains.

But today this is so much harder than it sounds.

It’s not just because transforming a business to a customer-first mentality is a challenge.

It is also because understanding what customers want is far from easy.

What customers want

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just asking them what they want.

Recently we undertook an in-depth study of close to 2,000 Australian customers as part of the 2018 KPMG Acuity Customer Needs survey. The top line result we got was very clear and very unhelpful: customers want to pay less. This applies across sectors.

The number one priority of banking and telecommunications customers is reduced fees and charges. For supermarket customers, it’s lower prices. Even in superannuation, more customers said they wanted reduced fees and charges more than better investment returns!

So obviously if companies focused on delivering what customers say they want, it would be a simple race to the bottom in which just about everyone goes out of business. That’s not an outcome customers – or anyone else – want.

So the impetus must be on getting a deeper understanding of customer needs and customer values.

This can be challenging because customers are not always straightforward and clear in articulating their needs.

A customer can’t tell you about how to innovate or disrupt – if they could they would probably be your competitor.

Customers can only tell you about what they don’t like about service offers at the moment, and how their needs are being unmet or are unsatisfied. Even then, you still have to be careful about how you interpret their comments.

Often they will tell you they want service to be faster and more efficient. But this doesn’t mean you can leap to the conclusion that they want a digital or automated solution.

Customers talk about outcomes, not necessarily service delivery models. They want the right mix of face-to-face human interaction and automation.

The companies that truly get it are those who understand there is no silver bullet. These companies understand they need to have engaged, helpful people delivering outstanding service. That these people need to be working in alignment with a great digital experience. And that it is this combination that drives loyalty, advocacy, and commercial performance.

So satisfying your new boss, the customer, is much more than asking them what they want and giving it to them.

Organisations heading into 2019 will have to deal with conflicting demands. Automation and human service. Personalisation and data security. A loose, open presence on social media, but without overstepping boundaries.

Customers want all of this right now – but then again, they are always changing.

Yet while the challenge cannot be underestimated, nor should it be feared. If you truly embrace customer-centricity as the all-encompassing necessity that it is, the focus then becomes about identity.

The choices your customers make will increasingly be about who they are and who they want to be.

Millennials in particular – the oldest of whom will soon be turning 40 – want to know that an organisation has a purpose, and that values and behaviours are embedded.

They want to know a brand is a good corporate citizen before they decide whether it is an organisation they want a relationship with. Ultimately, authenticity cannot be faked. But it is the key to opening hearts, minds – and wallets.

One thought on “The customer is your new boss

  1. Great article Paul. I like your comment that customer’s can’t always clearly articulate what they want. The customer is changing with dynamic influences all around them. A purchase decision is a complex process. As you said – hearts, minds and wallets.

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