Manufacturers must see past traditional channels to master the four fundamentals of engagement with end-users.
Not so long ago, manufacturing was mostly about making things. Manufacturing companies would develop and create a product, hand it off to a series of distributors or partners, and then collect their cut of the profits. No more.
To ensure long-term success, manufacturers must adopt a consumer-focused strategy that moves beyond distribution channels to engage directly with their products’ end users.
Putting customers first might sound obvious, but in many ways it represents a monumental shift in how most companies do business.
Back in 2010, the Harvard Business Review published a pivotal article called Rethinking Marketing in which the authors outlined what used to be standard practice: make a product, find a market for it, and find a way to sell to that market.
But, as the HBR article pointed out, this no longer works. Phenomena like “the Amazon Effect” have shown that success lies in moving from a product-centric to a customer-centric business model. And though the HBR article was published almost a decade ago, it seems manufacturers are still struggling to catch up to consumer needs and expectations.
We are now solidly entrenched in what Salesforce has dubbed "The Age of the Customer", an era in which digital strategies to engage directly with consumers is mission critical. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, such as Salesforce, have become key assets. But too often companies’ CRM investments become merely a “sales tool for activity tracking” rather than what they are built to be: a 360-degree viewpoint of your customers’ experiences.
There are four core elements of the new baseline customer experience:
Immediacy, Personalization, Consistency, and Anticipation.
Let’s break these down...
As consumers, we’ve all become impatient. In a world where information is literally at our fingertips, our standards are high. In their research on customer expectations, Salesforce found that 64 percent of consumers and 80 percent of business buyers expect the companies they do business with to respond to and interact with them in real time. And 80 percent of consumers report that immediate responses to requests influence their loyalty to a given brand.
Manufacturers have seen first-hand the impact technology can yield on the shop floor. Yet, many still use an old-school approach to customer service, with a handful of staff members answering phone calls on a landline. To stay relevant in the age of the customer, manufacturers should apply lean principles and a culture of innovation to all aspects of their business. Online communities, self-service portals, text messaging systems, social media platforms and chat bots --- all enhanced with AI --- are now fundamental tools.
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In addition to expecting near immediate responses, customers still want manufacturers to deliver the personalized service one might expect from the old mom and pop shops of days gone by. Did I mention customers’ standards are high?
Fortunately, automation and artificial intelligence offer companies the ability to virtually clone their customer service teams and deliver highly personalized service quickly and at scale. But no one likes talking to a robot or feeling like they’re just one of thousands to receive the same message. So employing these tools successfully takes a thoughtful and strategic approach.
When implementing any technology, I always recommend starting with your people, then examining your processes. Automated and AI tools should be carefully crafted and authentic extensions of your company culture and brand. In other words, think about the characteristics and practices of your most successful customer service agent. Often it’s the little touches like remembering a customer’s buying history or the problems they’ve recently worked to solve. Or maybe even something as simple as sending a note of congratulations when they achieve a major business milestone. Once you’ve identified those key touchpoints, you can map strategies for replicating that level of personalization by building out your customer database and automating considerate, authentic communication.
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Most manufacturers started out providing the sort of personalization and expediency outlined above, but were unable to keep up as their businesses have grown. In attempting to meet the unique needs of their customers, many manufacturers have accommodated highly personalized requests and customized their pricing, procedures or processes to meet the needs of specific customers. Easy enough to do when your customer base is small, but over time this lack of consistency becomes a nightmare.
Fortunately, we now have the ability to harness data to gain clear insights into our processes and outcomes and begin sifting through the mess we’ve created (I’ve been there!) as we’ve worked to grow our businesses.
Start with taking a look at who your customers are and sorting them into tiers. I’ve found the 80/20 rule to be extremely helpful --- in most cases, 80 percent of your business comes from 20 percent of your customers. Find the 20 percent that is offering you the most value and identify them as “key accounts” or “top customers.” These people deserve your constant attention, individualized service, and some flexibility in the way they do business with you.
The remaining 80 percent of your customer base is, of course, important, but it doesn’t make sense to continue offering them the level of personalization and customization of your top customers. Revisit your processes and agreements in working with this tier of customers, and find ways to streamline, standardize, and automate your interactions with them. Putting in place consistent pricing structures, service level agreements, and communications processes with these customers will help you more effectively and efficiently serve them while freeing up time for platinum level support for your top accounts.
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Harnessing the data we have on hand can not only help us understand our own businesses --- it can lend us unique insight into our customers’ operations. In fact, we may be able to provide greater insight into their processes than even they have!
Think back to the “Amazon effect” I mentioned earlier. Amazon does a great job of predicting its customers’ needs based on their past order history. Chances are, if you’ve ordered standard household items --- let’s say, paper towels --- from Amazon in the past, you’ll start seeing notifications about reordering right around the time you’re about to run out. Other retailers have taken this a step further. One British grocery chain, for example, sends coupons for beer to male customers who purchase diapers --- because they know they aren’t able to go to the pub as often with an infant at home!
This level of anticipation and proactive service doesn’t have to be limited to the B2C realm. Take, for example, Service Pump & Supply, an industrial provider of water transfer and management systems. By mining their internal data on pump repairs, Service Pump is now able to predict when a customer’s pump is likely to fail, how much the customer is likely to spend operating a pump in their unique environment, and provide customized preventative maintenance plans and schedules to extend the lifetime of their customers’ products.
But service quality like this is only as good as the data you maintain. Tackling a master data management strategy, building governance and mining your data for meaningful insight necessitates new roles and responsibilities. Having a strong business analyst and/or data scientist will be a rising role within the manufacturing space.
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All of this adds up to a exciting new world for manufacturers. For the first time in our history, we have the ability to deliver deeply personalized services and products at an enterprise level. Now is not the time to be intimidated by change --- let’s embrace this opportunity to provide better service, faster and at scale.