A Tectonic Shift in Power

By Eileen Feretic Print this article Print

Mobile technologies and social media have changed the balance in company-customer relationships, shifting power to the people.

Let’s take a brief trip to the not-so-distant past, a time when companies had the upper hand regarding interactions with customers. They could pretty much control the dialogue, and it was primarily one way: Businesses mailed and emailed information to customers. If there was a problem, customers could phone the call center, but that was often a time-consuming and frustrating proposition.

If customers weren’t satisfied with the company’s response to the complaint, they could vent to their family and friends and, if the problem was troublesome enough, lodge a protest with a consumer advocacy group or government agency. Again, this was often a time-consuming and frustrating proposition.

Vendors spouted the mantra: “The customer is king!” But the vendors—and the public—knew that wasn’t really the case. The vendor was the king.

Fast-forward to 2012, when an ever-growing number of customers are shouting, “Down with the king!” And, thanks to mobile technologies and social media, their shouts are being heard around the world.

If individuals are unhappy with a product or company, they can make their displeasure known to their circle of friends on Facebook, and they can tell their friends, who can tell their friends … You get the picture. Depending on how many followers they have on Twitter, disgruntled customers may even be able to tweet their unhappiness to a global audience.

It’s clear that today’s customers truly are kings and queens in terms of choice, power and control over the companies with which they do business. That has been a shock to the management of many vendors, who are ill-prepared to deal with this customer revolution.

The tide is not turning back, however, so companies that want to thrive—or even survive—in this new landscape need to rethink their business strategies and develop tactics that put their customers first.

That brings me to two companies that are doing an outstanding job of bonding with their customers through the use of mobile technologies. In “Mobility Transforms the Customer Relationship”, writer Sam Greengard details the steps USAA and AccuWeather.com have taken to make their customers’ lives easier.

Last year, USAA, which has close to 100 dedicated developers writing and updating mobile apps, handled about 183 million customer contacts through its mobile channel. “Our goal is to redefine processes and provide simpler and more powerful ways for customers to interact with us,” USAA VP Neff Hudson told Sam.

The financial services company lets customers deposit checks by using a smartphone to snap an image and send it to the bank via a mobile app. USAA customers can also take a photo of an auto accident with a smartphone and submit a claim right from the accident site.

“The goal is to build a robust cross-channel experience that lets customers interact in a way that makes sense for them,” Hudson added.

And USAA is not alone. AccuWeather.com, which provides weather forecasts and reports to consumers and businesses, provides its information though the Web and a range of smartphones and tablets. It also offers different versions of apps for various devices to match the needs of users.

“We use a couple of research firms that provide real-time feedback about customer behavior within these apps,” Christopher Patti, director of technology, told Sam.

Andrew Borg, senior research analyst for wireless and mobility at the Aberdeen Group, summed up the mobility-enabled company-customer relationship for Baseline: “It isn’t about differentiating yourself for the sake of standing out. … It’s all about making things simpler and better for the customer. When mobility is done right, the company and the customer come out ahead.”

Borg makes a lot of sense, but many companies won’t find it easy to deal with this tectonic shift of power to the customer. Decades of taking customers somewhat for granted will be hard to erase. It will require managers and executives to recreate their strategies and their mindset—not to mention their technology infrastructure.

Revolutions are always tough, complicated and painful, but this is one in which everyone can come out a winner.  

This article was originally published on 2012-02-22
Eileen Feretic is the Editor of Baseline Magazine.
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