Gone are the days of customer service consisting of treating buyers with common courtesy. Customer service has been disrupted by an expectation of a total customer experience that is dictated by the customer, not company policies.
The disruption to the age-old practice of keeping customers happy resulted from a combination of technological advancements and societal changes. These collided into a perfect storm that is leaving companies breathless as they try to balance what customers want with what they can reasonably offer.
Customers shape their own experiences by combining several methods of gathering information on a company and its products or services.
It’s not strange to find someone standing in front of a shelf in a retail store, checking the reviews and price of the same product online, and even purchasing the product from a competitor’s online platform … all while in the store.
Companies offering services rather than products have also not been spared in the digitisation of the customer experience.
Customers expect the same offering – or at least something very similar – whether they interact with a brand via online platforms or in a physical space.
In addition to customer service training companies now need to invest in understanding how customers use online platforms to shape their total experience.
The always on nature of the omni-channel customer experience has brought with it several challenges. Companies that have traditionally been used to having some time to regroup, restock, and rest now have to create procedures that have to adapt to a customer habit of instant gratification.
An auto-responder with an estimated timeline for feedback might generate some patience. Chatbots powered by artificial intelligence are however quickly rising to the rescue of brands struggling to deliver to their desired level of excellence at all hours. These tools can help to answer basic queries and might even be very effective in resolving complete matters.
Customer experience is shaped by touchpoints with a brand across multiple channels and over a longer timeline than just the actual buying decision. The total experience is also shaped by what their circle of influence – friends, family, and an extended online network – has shared about their own experience with a brand and its products or services.
Buying decisions are therefore made with much more than product specifications or service delivery promises in mind.
Customer service respresentatives these days have to be able to not only solve product or service related issues, but also be able to win the trust of a customer whose mind might have been made up by a spread of user-based comments posted online.
Customers shaping their own experiences with channels and inputs that are not dictated by brands have also had a significant impact on the traditional sales funnel.
Instead of linear thinking that develops an opportunity into a lead and eventually into a sale, customer experience agents have to adopt a matrix thinking approach. This approach allows for fluidly moving back and forth between the phases of the customer journey based on the preferences of each customer.
The age of industrialisation has allowed for the creation of many standardised policies and procedures focused on increasing profits and reducing expense by keeping customers happy.
The age of information now demands that brands allow for the flexibility that is required as the customer truly becomes the king.
Only 25% of the world’s population is comfortable with changing the status quo and doing things with an innovative twist. These individuals are often called disruptors or innovators.
As businesses struggle to create success in their sectors that have been disrupted by technological advances, these individuals are now highly sought-after and rare.
The main difference between those who disrupt and those who are disrupted is their dependence on comfort.
It is often not the physical difficulty of doing something differently that holds us back from change, but the emotional discomfort that goes along with it.
This emotional discomfort stems from a complex combination of neurobiological, psychological, and sociological factors.
The human brain is designed to conserve energy as a survival mechanism. It does this by creating neural pathways that drive unconscious behaviour – habits – for tasks we perform on a regular basis. Any new task or activity requires a lot of effort, and the brain will therefore always try to revert to habits that are already formed.
Doing something differently is uncomfortable because we feel tired a lot quicker.
We are used to preparing for and dealing with cyclical change – like seasons that come and go – and are not often exhausted by it because there are periods of stability in this type of change.”
The nature of disruptive change differs from cyclical change; it is unpredictable and does not contain periods of stability.
Our personality types shapes our dependence on stability. 75% of the world’s population prefers to operate in familiar environments and from skills they’ve already perfected.
Disruptive advances however require us to work in environments that seem to have changed overnight.
It is understandable that the majority of employees will have a negative emotional reaction to the instability businesses have to to embrace to keep their doors open in a disrupted world.
Emotional reactions to change often include anger, fear, and sadness. These emotions are not only driven by individual employees’ personality types, but also by the culture of the business.
When the culture of a business – the way we do things around here – is highly resistant to change, even highly adaptable individuals become uncomfortable with doing things differently.
Groups – whether it be colleagues in the work environment, or friends or family – set and manage their boundaries by showing acceptance or rejection of the behaviour of individuals. If the behaviour of an individual threaten the group’s regular way of doing things, the individual might soon experience that they have been rejected by the group.
There is significant discomfort in being on the receiving end of rejection by a group, and this discomfort will often drive an individual to follow popular opinion rather than follow their own choice.
This play between acceptance and rejection manipulates how easily people in businesses adapt – and stick – to new ways of doing things.
The discomfort of disruption is what drives businesses and individuals to continue to seek alternatives to change – such as denial, delay and undermining tactics – even though they know that the world as we knew it will never return.
Only once we retrain ourselves and our workforces to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable will we be able to turn disruptive threats into opportunities for success.
My advice for businesses is to train their employees in the skills needed to accept change quicker by understanding what the core purpose – not job description – of their roles are.
This understanding must be combined with knowledge of the major trend predictions for the future of their particular profession or sector, and a replacement of industrial management habits with a design thinking mindset.
When a new era dawns in any organisation the habit is usually to turn towards motivational techniques to effect the necessary change. This is however exactly what prevents most organisations from changing effectively.
While traditional motivational activities work very well for creating shared intentions – usually based on hope, fear, or peer pressure – real change only happens through sustained and disciplined action.
The missing link between intent and action for change is the skill to change one’s own behaviour.We often expect people to adapt to change – especially when we’re excited about a new opportunity – without ever teaching them how to change.
This expectation is as unfair as asking an artist to do the job of a trained accountant. They might be very willing to, but unless they receive the same training, they will be largely unable to, or at least be unable to perform at the same level.
Translate the reason for change
The first step in developing the skill to change is to ensure that everyone affected understands exactly what should change and why.
While this might seem obvious, change management campaigns are often reduced to clever catch phrases developed by marketing departments.
Very few organisations invest in translating change messages into a context that is relevant to and understood by various groups and individuals.
Never assume that everyone understands why change is necessary. It is easy to mistake shared intent for true understanding. This is often a symptom of too much focus on motivating change, without the necessary backup by a clearly understood reason for change.
The logical reason for change will be the basis of discipline that’s left after the initial motivation – driven by emotion – has subsided.
It is also imperative to be very specific on which behaviours are expected to change.
People find it easier to change if they are told exactly what is expected of them in terms of both undesired and replacement behaviour, rather than leaving it up to individual interpretation.
Understand the complexity of resistance to change
Even the most compelling reasons for change, and the clearest communication is however not a guarantee for changed behaviour.
Humans are neurologically, psychologically, and sociologically programmed to resist change as a survival mechanism. We are hardwired to think that we can only ensure our future survival if we can control what the future will look like.
Organisations have to teach those that will be affected by change how to accept the unfamiliar and remain focused on the core purpose of the organisation. Resistance to change is dependent on so many complexities that the “mind over matter” approach of most change management programmes is unrealistic. Organisations that empathise with its people and train them on how to reduce the habitual resistance will see much better results.
Don’t count on linear results
Traditional change management programmes rely on motivation led by a change champion, and an entire group moving from one point to another through massive effort.
The problem with this linear approach is that it is not suited to the agile world in which we live. Very often, we find that change has changed by the time we get to where we thought it was going to be.
This strengthens my argument against relying too heavily on change driven by motivation, and led by a single source.
Change driven by several individuals or smaller groups – who have been trained in how to change their own behaviour to effect change – might not deliver results that align with each other simultaneously. It does however allow for these individuals and groups to take responsibility and be accountable for continuous movement towards a shared goal.
While linear results might look better in a report, more organic results have a compound effect across an organisation. Before you expect something different of people, first make sure that they understand exactly what is expected of them, and take responsibility as an organisation for equipping them to do differently. It might seem unnecessarily frustrating and lengthy in the beginning, but it will be an investment that continues to provide returns.
Buzzwords like social sharing, interconnectedness, engagement, immediacy and transparency have left the confines of social media discussions dominated by marketers and have started scaring professionals across all levels and functions of organisations.
The Robotics and the ‘New’ Supply Chain: 2015-2020 report produced by www.RoboticsBusinessReview.com included some clues to supply chain changes that need immediate action:
While forecasting and the increased adoption of demand driven materials resource planning (DDMRP) have already made significant inroads in reducing inventory levels and response times, data collected through social channels can increase the ability of forecasting systems to track where problems might occur before they occur.
Social media at its core is not about tweeting and liking and pinning and instagramming, but about access to information at a rate and volume that we’ve never experienced before.
Adrian Gonzalez, founder and president of Adelante SCM, is spot-on in saying “social media can – and should – play a central role in supply chain management. After all, social networking is not really about socialising, but about facilitating peopleto- people communication and collaboration.”
Humans over the ages have always had an inherent need to gain and share information. With fast-growing popularity of broadcast mass media in the 1900s it became possible to share messages with large audiences quite quickly. However, it remained only in reach of those with big budgets and access to creative content creators.
The digital revolution took mass media one step further by making it possible for anyone with an internet connection to circumvent the privilege and limitations of traditional mass media. The social media revolution made it possible for everyone to share a message instantaneously, and as a result the speed of gaining and sharing information has increased to the extent where businesses and industries managed according to tried and true practices are struggling to keep up.
In 2008 the Future Supply Chain report (available from http://bit.ly/2016FutureSupplyChain) compiled by the Global Commerce initiative included a number of issues that required the urgent attention of supply chain professionals to find solutions that threaten supply chains. With 2016– when the report advised these challenges be minimised– already history, most supply chains still struggle with the same issues: collaboration, integration, balancing customer satisfaction and supply chain performance, increased energy prices, and e-commerce.
Similarly the report advised ‘systems of transactions’ be changed to ‘systems of engagement’ and predicted that access to these systems would no longer be limited to a select few companies with big budgets but to all allowing the younger generation of supply chain practitioners to lead the way. This process of change is hindered by experienced professionals who refuse to accept the impact of social media on business. As valuable as these professionals and their skills, knowledge and experience are, they have inadvertently become the ones who are placing supply chains at serious risk. Social media has already started impacting demand planning, sourcing strategies and transportation capacity of existing supply chains, and the impact is likely to increase exponentially.
Supply chains that are truly social demand a change in the DNA of the supply chain by making buyers part of the chain through being socially informed and who enable forecasting and feedback by, for example:
It is of utmost importance that social supply chain conversations not focus on the popularity or comparison of existing social media platforms. The conversation should much rather focus on the genuine acceptance of customer demands that now include simplicity and absolute transparency. Social thinking is not about tools; it’s about a social mindset. Supply chains willing to truly listen, collaborate and share will find themselves in a less threatened position for future growth.
The biggest challenge for supply chain professionals willing to embrace the necessary changes is to convince the entire supply chain to consider approaches that are currently resisted because they pose a risk to the status quo.
The benefits of social supply chains, however, far outweigh the risks:
Manage exceptions and risks faster – Supply chains can save time by evaluating the financial and operational consequences of any proposed changes in a timely and effective manner, and reach a quick consensus and compromise on the course of action. An e-mail to 50 people that might be able to work on a solution takes considerably more time to process and return feedback than a post on an internal, collaborative social network that can simultaneously reach 50 000 people who already have the answer.
Shorten inventory lead times – “The speed of the chain is not really related to the systems used by the various companies – it’s all about people, and people talking to people,” said Tony Martins, the VP of Supply Chain at TEVA Canada. “Traditional command and control structures are outdated. Social media can create a virtual table around which resellers, wholesalers, manufacturers and suppliers can sit at the same time, and work towards fulfilling market needs all at the same time … not in a linear process as is currently the case.”
Reduce response times – Being able to alter distribution based on social data, available in real time and at low cost is no longer a distant dream, but a reality already in use globally. Demand for new products based on trends can adjust import quantities, delivery schedules and even inform innovation. Adverse weather conditions forcing delivery delays can be logged and communicated before posing a threat to driver and fleet safety or customer satisfaction. Low stock level alerts can be triggered simultaneously at the retailer, manufacturer and distributor.
Leverage supplier communities – By leveraging supplier communities to make business decisions and improvements to the supply chain and the systems managing it can have a significant reduction in research, development and even IT support costs.
Transparency – Social networks can provide a wider view of the supply chain and enable a large kinetic entity, rather than static and separated cogs.
Innovate and improve – Social networking can help companies generate more – and better – ideas for improving supply chain processes and solving existing problems by tapping the collective insights, knowledge and expertise of employees across all levels of the enterprise (and beyond). If companies are already using ‘crowdsourcing’ to drive innovation in product development, why not apply the same concept to drive innovation in supply chain management?
Measure effectively – Fill-rate, accuracy and on-time delivery type metrics only inform how well we did our jobs, but do not provide the full view of how well we serviced our customers. Insights generated by monitoring social media channels provide extremely valuable insight that can have significant impact on supply chain planning.
Supply chains have run out of time to be comfortable and complex. In less than 18 months end-users will have found or designed a way to bypass the traditional supply chain by simply using existing technologies in new ways. It is time to take to heart the wisdom of Charles Darwin: “It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
The popularity of wearable technology has had an impact on far more than just fashion and digital design trends. The ever-growing trend that will soon cause a flurry of frantic activity in marketing offices around the world is the impending change in information consumption.
Both studies based on formal research and those based on pure observation have proven that information consumption trends have changed significantly in a short period of time.
These days the most popular written pieces tend to be those divided by sub-headings, as it helps readers who have learned the skill of consuming short bytes of information at lightning speeds, to stick to longer form content. Even the decision on whether or not to read the full written piece is sometimes based on the value of information received from reading only the subheadings.
Long form content will always have a place, as people have an innate need to gather information. It is the format and length of lure that leads to informational long form pieces that has and will continue changing.
Major shakeups in the recent past for content creators (writers, marketers, PR professionals, journalists, videographers etc) include:
Wearable technology, whether it is a smart watch or smart set of eyewear, has brought about a new disruption. With tiny screens, room for only a single message, adapted scrolling functionality, wearable technology demands extreme brevity like no tool before it.
For content creators, who spend countless hours producing perfectly poised materials, the looming change in information consumption is a scary business. What many clients don’t realise is that it takes the same amount of time, if not longer, to create a piece of content that is suitable for the brevity demanded by developing mobile technologies, than a longer piece suitable for print or computer.
Content creators need to become skilled in formats suitable for the extreme brevity that is demanded by wearable tech, and will also have to educate their clients on the need for messages in a variety of formats.
I’m often asked for marketing advice to help businesses grow. My answer is never popular.
Most businesses think (hope) they’ve not been using their marketing tools wrong, so they think (hope) I can wave a magic wand or give them a few quick tricks to help them do it better.
The problem is however rarely the way marketing tools (social media, websites, emails etc) are used. Too few businesses understand what it is they’re supposed to be marketing.
Only once you know what you want to be known for when you get to where you are going, can you invite customers to join you on the journey.
My first question when asked for marketing advice is always: “Why should customers buy from you?”
The answer is usually a muddle between technical specifications, how long the business has been around, and “because we need them to”.
None of these reasons are however strong enough to make a case for a prospective customer that is faced with too many options, and not enough guidance. But businesses can’t guide customer decisions if they themselves are not crystal clear on the value they offer, or how it connects to the needs of their customers.
Business growth starts with a strategy that balances historical value, future innovation, and current relevance determined by customer need.
Marketing initiatives should focus less on the tools to be used, and more on staying in sync with what customers need now, and how the world they live in is changing. Only then will you be able to develop marketing messages that can be matched with marketing tools that support your business growth objectives.
Most people avoid speaking in public like the plague. Sharing your story on a stage however remains one of the best ways to influence stakeholders and build reputation.
To add another dimension to your public relations efforts, keep the following in mind when you are approached - or actively searching for - a speaking opportunity:
Is the occasion relevant to what you or your organisation want to achieve? Speaking engagements take up a significant amount of time, and this time is best invested if it is related to achieving strategic objectives.
You can test the relevancy of a speaking engament based on:
- the audience that will be attending,
- the overall theme of the event,
- the speaker guidelines that might allow or restrict certain types of presentations, and
- how confident you are with the topic you need to address (irrespective of your comfort with public speaking).
The value of a speaking engagement doesn't necessarily lie in the fee that might accompany it, but how you can maximise the activity around it. If the organisers are promoting the event and/or speakers via social media, make sure that you share their content with your own network. Famous by association is still very much a "thing", and your connection to an event of the right calibre and type might be of great reputational value to you.
If you develop custom content (presentation, whitepaper, article) for the speaking engagement, make sure that you share the content on various other relevant platforms after the event. Linkedin allows for sharing content in numerous formats, and is also the best place to share business related content.
Use a speaking engagement to empower, enlighten, or energise the audience. Never use it to sell a product, share a history, or show off your accomplishments.
Executives are often invited as keynote speakers or programme directors, but they might not necessarily be the best person for the job. If you are approached for a session that you feel is about your current level of speech delivery expertise, rather request whether a different type of session is available. As your speaking expertise improves, you'll be able to accept a wider variety of engagements.
Always consider the amount of preparation necessary for each speaking engagement. It is always a good idea to customise your content somewhat according to the event and audience, but accepting speaking engagements are much easier if you can rely on content that you are very confident with, and have existing presentation material ready for.
Never fall into the trap of having someone else prepare your speech or presentation material on your behalf right before a speaking engagement. A nervous presenter is forgiven much more often than a poorly prepared one.
Conferences used to be a highlight on many corporate calendars as these events provided rare networking opportunities with peers and insights from global thought leaders.
These days many of these thought leaders regularly share easily digestible snippets of wisdom via social media, and peer networking activities ignore geographical boundaries.
Despite this, there aren’t many conferences that have moved on from long days with drawn-out programmes and struggles to deal with information overload, shortly relieved by predictable breaks and a tangible lack of delegate networking.
Conference delegates needs have changed, and in tough economic times organisations expect more tangible benefit from their investment in delegate registration fees. Conference organisers have to do better than just updating the speaker list of the previous year’s conference.
The first step to realise this change is by not thinking of conferences as large-scale meetings with an agenda of items to get through
Arranging a meeting requires logistics; creating a conference is a form of art. Conference organisers should create collaborative corporate theatre productions.
Think audience comfort first
It has become necessary to make it easy for delegates to stay at the venue for the duration of the conference instead of relying on their own motivation.
Obvious items such as unlimited free wifi – with connection assistance available on site – and a plug point for each seat should become commonplace. These items however incur significant additional costs, and are unfortunately not approved in many conference budgets.
Adjustments that can be made without any additional costs stem from being aware of differing levels of stimulation needed by delegates to maintain energy levels throughout the programme.
While some might be comfortable in dimly lit venue for an entire day, others might do well if the lights are turned up during speaker introductions or panel discussions. Even the type of background music and variations in levels of sound could be manipulated during the day to suit or change the audience energy.
Obvious but often overlooked items such as communication geared to not only convey instructions, but enhance each individual delegate’s experience of the conference cost very little, but make a big difference.
Delegates must be made to feel as if their needs have been anticipated, not as if they are an inconvenience crammed into what was available.
Audience comfort has to be anticipated and accommodated from registration and arrival right through to the closing session at the end of the programme.
Make each delegate the main character in an exciting storyline
Conferences have all the hype and excitement at the beginning with the host or main sponsors usually as the star. This focus needs to be changed around so that delegates form the main characters in creating a conference story that is relevant to their own individual needs.
Instead of allowing content only from speakers and sponsors, conference organisers should work towards developing an additive conference model.
Additive conferences enable audiences to contribute content based on their own insights, and incorporate it into the formal programme.
Instead of limiting delegate notes to scribbles on venue paper that will at best get filed back at the office, create participation spaces where the key takeaways from delegates can be collected after each session.
Such a participation space could be as impressive as a large wall covered with easily removable vinyl on which delegates can write, or a packet of sticky notes on which delegates can jot down “a-hah moments” to stick onto flipcharts.
These compiled takeaways, whether in video or written form, can be made available to other delegates as a post-conference keepsake. It also serves as additional conference content that extend the value of the conference past what was offered by the speakers.
Speed up the audience learning curve
Another benefit of active audience content contributions at regular intervals is that it speeds up the audience learning curve, enabling delegates to implement new ideas much quicker to the benefit of their employers.
The key to delegate participation is to not leave it only for scheduled break times, but incorporate it as part of the time allocated for each session. This will increase the amount of participation as it becomes a group activity rather than being left up to each delegate’s individual motivation.
The conference MC can spend 10 reflective minutes after every session to help delegates recall what they’ve heard, interpret it based on their own circumstances, and contribute a summary, thought, or challenge to the pool of audience-generated content.
Train the storytellers
It goes without saying that the MC leading these sessions needs to be a professional experienced in the craft. An MC is often chosen from a limited number of willing volunteers, and while this might seem like a cost effective option, it does very little to build better conferences.
Similarly, speakers are often selected from the information provided on application forms that traditionally focus on the intellectual value of the content, rather than the proficiency of the speaker in delivering valuable content in an engaging way.
Spending some of the conference budget on a professional keynote speaker is always a good investment, as these professionals are experienced in setting or matching the scene and mood of a conference, but it doesn’t mean that all speakers have to be professionals.
One of the best ways to elevate the performance of the volunteer speakers is to provide them with a video channel that features short examples of preferred styles and general public speaking tips that will be suitable to the specific conference. It is also very helpful to include a video submission section in the speaker application process to determine where additional assistance might be necessary.
Sponsors and exhibitors also form a significant part of the conference story. While the majority might be experienced conference participants, organisers can do a lot more to build better conferences by guiding sponsors and exhibitors in audience needs.
Organisers need to guide sponsors who will have a speaking opportunity to share with the audience why they support the conference and perhaps the sector, as people remember how brands made them feel, not what brands sold.
It might also be necessary to alter the logistics of sponsored items and hand out promotional items after a sponsor session or video, rather than including all promotional items in the delegate bag received during registration.
Don’t give away all the good stuff at the beginning of a conference; give the audience a chance to earn it throughout the programme.
THE ROBOTS ARE COMING!
Depending on your personality type, your appetite for risk and popular opinion of the people that surround you, your reaction to this statement will either be one of excitement or one of absolute terror.
The future is often described as an insurmountable obstacle racing towards us at a frightening speed.
We are however not as unprepared as we might think, even when we take into account trend predictions made by futurists. Developments over the past decade have already provided us with guidelines and structures to prepare for the future.
All we need now is a shift in mind set.
Disruption as base for vision
When we set the direction for the future we need to have a basic understanding of the innovations that are predicted to disrupt the industries we operate in and rely on.
With social media enabling the instantaneous sharing of ideas and discoveries, keeping our finger on the pulse of innovation is easier and cheaper than ever. In most instances it is not even necessary to understand the intricate details of all the innovations; a broad awareness will help guide leadership decisions toward setting a direction that is less likely to be surprised by disruption.
An honest look at what our world may be like in the future will enable us to focus on what is necessary to keep fulfilling the purpose of our effort.
We need to have a clear purpose for our efforts combined with a firm understanding of innovations that will have an impact on those efforts.
The purpose of an organisation can no longer be merely self-serving. Society demands that all organisations set a direction for responsible effort in the triple context of profit, people, and planet.
Sustainability as a habit
Sustainability is a term often used interchangeably between the continued existence of an organisation and the environmental impact of a product.
It should however be used as combination of the two and adopt the King IV Report on Good Governance description of “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”.
This description refers not only to the responsible use of existing limited natural resources, but also to the investment needed into alternative materials and methods that will reduce the negative environmental impact from decisions made by previous generations.
We need to consider how each decision we make now - as individuals, communities or organisations - will change the quality of life of our children and their children's children.
We must also understand that future generations will not live in the world that we know now. A change from automation by machines programmed by humans to robots that function on their own through artificial intelligence, is merely one of the changes that is no longer a prediction, but already a reality.
Communication as a hard skill
It is therefore necessary to ensure that we do not merely build our awareness of potential disruption, but that we also share it with others and prepare them for it.
Change management programmes and the communication plans that go with them has become a specialised function, but it seems to have little impact where disruption is concerned.
The problem with change management is that it is a linear process, while disruption is known for change that has changed by the time you deal with it.
Effective communication that attempts to prepare teams for disruption is barred by human nature that triggers an automatic resistive response once we're faced with something new and unfamiliar.
We need to distinguish between communicating change and communicating crisis by training our teams to form a habit of seeing disruption as an opportunity, not a threat.
To achieve this we need to stop delegating communication to marketing teams as a support function. We need to retrain our workforces to develop communication capabilities as a core skill, as that is predicted to become our saving grace for when the robots do come.