If you think customers were fussy in 2013...

My dear old dad, now 91-years old, grew up in Europe during the 2nd World War and the years of turmoil that followed, and it deeply affected everything that he is today. He is the humblest and kindest person I know, (a trait shared by many of the “Silent Generation,”) and he is also incredibly frugal. It drives us crazy that he still eats all the rotten bits of cheese and fruit, and methodically uses his tissues until every corner is used up. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard him saying things like, “Waste not, want not.”

So why am I rambling on about my dad? I truly believe that people who are alive today have been strongly affected in a similar way, albeit with slightly different values. The most important issue for our generation is not humility or frugality, but trust. We feel betrayed by governments and businesses, (as well as many other sports, religious and other organisations,) and the faith and belief is gone.

What’s made it worse for companies is that customers find ever-easier ways to deal with competitors, to identify and expose the greed, lies, fraud and cheating committed against them by companies trying to separate them from their hard-earned money. There will doubtless be more Wikileaks, Noseweek and HelloPeter.com websites and investigative reports that expose companies’ worst practices, and I have no doubt that customers will take action against any business that is vaguely unethical, greedy or abusive.

Of course, combine this new austerity with the fact that customers actively seek better deals, and that they also do the “re-use, renew, recycle” thing whenever they can, and there is a powder keg waiting to explode. 2014 will be the year when businesses that are not customer-centric will pay the price of rebellious customer activism. If you don’t believe me, look at the disgraceful manner in which SANRAL introduced the new toll-roads, and the way people responded to that.

Ask people about the state of customer service, and there is a good chance that they will be able to tell you about at least five stories of terrible experiences – and not many positive ones. In a recent survey of more than 400 South African customers, 72% said that they had experienced rage with a business at least once in the last 4 months. Anyone who has tried to solve a problem with a bank, airline booking, or mobile phone service provider recently will know what this sense of powerlessness feels like.

The horrendous state of customer care is not particularly new to most readers. What is new is the fact that companies are going to pay a higher price for not taking care of customers, because rebellious customers become more able and willing to take action.

But the damage that customers do goes way beyond bad-mouthing a company and affecting its reputation, (in the social media and everywhere else.) Withdrawal of business, taking legal action, contacting consumer bodies and media, abuse of staff and property, and not paying accounts are some of the other negative consequences. And all this in an environment where comparisons happen in real time, and customers demand better prices through decreased cost and waste.

What customer care trends do we think will happen in 2014? Even more importantly, how can a business avoid the pitfalls of poor customer management? Here are our thoughts:

  • For many years companies have employed “brand police” in senior executive positions to ensure that the company image is clearly defined and communicated. More and more companies will hire senior “customer police” who are obsessed with ensuring that customers are treated right. As author Chris Anderson put it, “A company’s brand is not what the company says it is, but what the customer says it is on Google… The ants have megaphones now.” Early on, amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos brought an empty chair into meetings so that company executives and managers would be forced to think about the crucial participant who wasn’t in the room: the customer. Now that role is played by specially trained employees, and when they frown, executives tremble. As the power of traditional marketing and promotion activity fails even more, companies will need to focus on giving customer better experiences. The bottomless pit of wasred money is closing, and being replaced by more accountability for results.
  • Businesses will be forced to make customers’ lives easier and more convenient. Companies need to look at four levels: What can they do to make it physically easier for customers? What can they do to make things less intellectually and conceptually challenging? What can they do to ensure that customers’ emotional frustrations don’t occur? How can they save customers’ time? Businesses need to look in the real world, as well as online. Thus, as a minimum, you need to reduce effort needed, reduce complexity, reduce frustration experienced, and speed up delivery and waiting times.
  • Customers will definitely become even more demanding about basic customer service issues in 2014: greater reliability, quality and keeping promises; more speed; greater 24/7 availability, (never be hard to reach); more personalisation and humanness in communication; more competence and consistency, (and less unpredictability); more friendliness, warmth and empathy; and a greater sense of security and safety. We also predict that lots of training and motivating people who deal with customers will become a bigger priority for larger companies. More and more customers will ask, “Do you know who I am?” Do you recognise their history with your business, their personal preferences, and what’s important to them? They don’t care that you have 15 million or 100 million other customers. They want you to treat them as if they are the most important customer, or they will go to companies that do that. There has been a lot of discussion about mining “big data,” but they don’t care. If you haven’t even managed to conquer small data like calling them on their birthday, big data is irrelevant.
  • Companies make mistakes often, (whether it’s overcharging your credit card, or sending the wrong product,) and customers usually want to hear two simple little words: “We’re sorry.” Business, unfortunately, often have trouble expressing that sentiment, which only leads to more frustration and anger from consumers. Don’t ignore customer unhappiness, and don’t be petty or stingy when sorting it out.
  • Innovation and added value will separate average organisations from the unique, distinct and successful ones. To this we can add customer expectations of memorable and amazing experiences that they will want to repeat over and over. It’s not only about gifts and entertainment: the personal touch has and always will be very desirable for all customers, not just the select few. The buzzwords used today are about creating customer experiences. In the immortal words of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, “Here we are now. Entertain us.” Related strongly to this is how you make them feel. Do you bring a smile to their faces? Do you pay them genuine compliments often? Can you give them some small luxurious indulgences that are guilt-free? Can you make them feel that they are doing some good in the world, for other people less fortunate, or for the environment, for example? (For example, there’s a company that converts guns and bullets into jewelry.) Even allowing them to participate in some creative innovations or reviewing something by asking them to participate can make them feel good.
  • While social media and the internet will increase in usage, online retailers will not surpass bricks-and- mortar businesses until there is a vast improvement in their half-hearted, excuse-driven service and delivery. With one notable exception – YuppieChef – SA online retailers leave a lot to be desired in service, reliability and delivery. It’s not about fears of credit card fraud, poor internet speed, or an unreliable postal service. It’s mostly because South Africans don’t trust that their orders will arrive. Having said that, no large organisation can afford to ignore the internet and social media. Channel preferences for doing business are changing rapidly. You have no choice but to allow customers to communicate and transact with you via many possible media, including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, videos on YouTube, Pinterest, SlideShare, mobi-sites, and so on. Make sure that your communication with them is relevant, anticipated, and personal.
  • On the other hand, many companies will get cleverer about the way they manage their customers. They will be more adept at creating loyalty and retention, (especially for the selected “good customers,”) cross-selling and upgrading customers, and using the power of referrals and recommendations. But if those customers don’t feel actively positive about the business, these strategies will backfire, leaving an even darker void for salespeople. And decisions will also need to be made about the “long tail” of smaller customers that have the potential to grow.

Many executives may question what the return on investment on customer management activity will be. Our answer is unequivocal. The ROI of taking care of customers is that you will still be around in the next five years to talk about it.

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