Whether it is called digitalization or digital transformation, few are the companies not looking at the impact of digital on operations.

Change management programs are afoot wherever you look. Executive teams are mobilizing and companies are needing to find new ways to drive the business. Whenever one tries something new, failure is a real risk.

Yet, it’s not because we might fail that we should not act. These days, there is a plethora of choice. There are myriad new tools, platforms and systems from which to choose to help drive the business.

However, whichever digital option a brand selects, most companies are failing to act on one very central theme for survival: de facto customer centricity. While many senior executives are speaking about being ‘turned toward the client’, unfortunately, it’s a clear case of easier said than done.

Many companies suffer from being overly product-centric or channel-centric (or both), where internal politics and processes as well as legacy systems dramatically impair a company’s ability to become truly centered on the customer.  

What are the keys to converting into a truly customer-centric organization? This is the question that this article would like to explore.

Status check

 The first port of call is to take stock of where the organization stands. There are several notable ways to determine the customer-centricity of an organization:

  • Look at the rapidity and ease with which customer service responds to a client via at least two different channels.
  • Ask a customer-facing employee (e.g. sales or customer service) whether there is easy and quick access to all the necessary information to answer most customer questions.
  • Check out the ratings and reviews available online.
  • Is there an easy way to receive customer feedback and does it get channeled into the organization to help create actions?

A more complex environment

As much as executives are aware of the need to be more competitive, innovative and responsive, the challenge is making customer centricity a de facto experience.

The intention is often there; but the actions too regularly don’t match. Consumers are prone to judge by what you do, not by what you say. Consumers have developed a very palpable mistrust of marketers and executives, to say nothing of customer-facing salespeople.

Customer centricity has been rendered enormously complex by the conjunction of three factors: 

  • The explosion of devices, platforms and channels.
  • The need for transparency and immediacy of information.
  •  A heightened level of customer exigency (a function of increased competition and a difficult economic environment).

Sales and marketing: a rethink

There are two very distinct areas where customer centricity takes all its weight in today’s business environment: sales and marketing.

This is nothing new, you might say. However, reality is that both functions have changed dramatically over the last decade. In the case of sales, there has been a decided throttling of the sales function in an ever more intense search for increased sales productivity.

As a consequence, widespread salespeople headcount reductions and multiple shortcuts have been embedded into the business cycle. In the process, the customer has often been given a scaled back customer service.

Like sales, the scope of marketing has had to be rethought to encompass the digital tools and opportunities.

Driven by a Taylorian approach looking for greater efficiencies and productivity, and seeking an immediate return on investment, marketers and sales teams alike have catered to short-term results. In the process, they have betrayed the consumers’ trust.

Baby steps 

In this paper, we believe there are two very concrete paths to getting on the right path to customer centricity. The first is via a reconfiguring of the salesperson’s role and mindset. The second is by integrating and embedding digital marketing upstream in the marketing strategic planning.

In either case, the process toward developing a customer-centric organization starts with concrete, baby steps.

The new mindset in digital marketing

Notwithstanding the new marketing tools that are available in the portfolio, marketing in the digital era requires a new mindset. This includes the need to be able to act and respond in real time at the customer-facing end of the chain.

Because of the surfeit of information and ability for customers to express their opinions publicly and quickly, marketers now need to align their message with reality.

Marketers need to have the agility to respond via multiple channels and know how to manage the risk of making errors. They need to define their voice in such a way that resonates with authenticity in the customers’ mind, all the while being congruent for the engaged employee.

Aside from improving the oft-discussed storytelling techniques, a strong brand marketer is required to create content that speaks to the customer base.

The only way that will work is if the marketer develops the empathy to understand the customer’s point of view. The modern marketer will de-emphasize the display (banner) advertising option in exchange for more targeted, personalized and relevant search.

In essence, the modern marketer who is integrating digital marketing upstream, will need to understand better both the brand’s installed base as well as the targeted new audience.

Whereas spray and pray marketing methods depend on impersonal statistics, digital marketing in the area of big data allows for intelligent and real-time data.

Engaging with customers in the digital sphere in ways that demonstrate value in exchange for personal details (including an email address and/or mobile number) is the real way forward.

The role of experimentation

For a brand to improve, the first step is to experiment. Having set out some clear objectives that, ideally, can be related to a valuable return on investment, the modus operandi must follow the pattern: Act, (Fail), Learn and Improve.

Because digital marketing speaks directly to the customer and because that customer is impatient and expecting greater transparency, a brand embroiled in internal politics, without a clear voice or sense of direction will inevitably break down if it is not customer centric.

Customer service departments know this only too well. Marketing in its new incarnation must consider customer service an extension of its tools. And, of course, digital marketing must be a part of every marketer’s repertoire.

As we like to say, we’d rather see a company where everyone is 1% community manager, than have a dedicated community manager, 100% responsible for managing the online community.

Once digital marketing is integrated into the fabric of the organization, there is an inevitable process that requires the entire organization to re-organize to channel the right information in real-time to the people who are manning the customer-facing platforms and networks.

Cross-section: sales and marketing at the digital point of sale

An area that sits between sales and marketing is the point of sale. As companies grapple with integrating digital tools and systems into the point of sale, the issue is how to make the new tools seamless and effective.

In this nascent area, digital is still rarely present on the high street, even though the customers are fully equipped. A successful integration of digital tools and systems at the point of sale requires a high degree of coordination between four key departments: marketing, IT, sales and HR.

Marketing needs to onboard the IT department to make sure that the infrastructure works. Retail is detail and a small bug on an in-store tablet can be a big deal from the customer’s perspective.

The staff on the sales floor needs to feel empowered by the digital tools, not disenfranchised. Hiring the staff with the right attitude is 90% of the battle, but providing the right training is also vital.

Customer-facing sales also need customer centricity 

Enter a number of high street stores or sales environments and the customer is greeted by a smiling “salesperson”, because this is what the personnel have been told to do!  Depending on the remuneration (salary or commission) and training, the smile can quickly become pushy or stand-off.

Where the customer centricity starts to break down is when the customer starts to need assistance from the busy staff that is focused on tidying racks or occupying themselves with paperwork rather than dealing with a customer. This is usually driven by the fact that the employees are told “what and how” to behave, but don’t really grasp the “why? 

The minute the salesperson is trapped in the world of “I’m going to earn this much bonus/commission from this sale,” they are lost. If, however, they focus on the customers’ needs and desires, they won’t have to sell anything, the customer will want to buy. Then the bonus/commission becomes a simple bi-product of looking after the customer.

Digital tools at the point of sale

Below, Stephen recounts two recent personal experiences where digital tools were used to ‘aid’ the salesperson, but with two completely different outcomes.

Car showroom

Whilst waiting for a salesperson to raise their head and acknowledge that my wife and I were standing by his desk, I noticed a tablet (iPad) set on a stand next to a new vehicle. I had a quick browse to see what it had to offer. The tablet let you configure your new car, look for used vehicles and, as you would expect, provided a complete digital offering.

Finally the salesperson asked the $64,000,000 question: “Can I help you?” It would have really helped the process if he had bothered to introduce himself and attempt to enquire who I was. But it was not to be.

Rather than consider building personal rapport as one might in any social situation, the salesperson was programmed to create a selling situation.

I asked him a technical question on a particular model (which I’d already been researching). He then moved to the tablet to search for the answer, not making any reference about it or what he was doing until he said, “this is quite new and I’m not sure how it all works!”  

Suffice to say, he did not secure a sale as he might have hoped. He also knew nothing of me as a potential customer.

Shoe shop

My wife spent a Saturday afternoon searching for a particular pair of shoes. They were shoes that my wife desperately wanted (not needed!). Finally, she found a shop with the correct shoes, in the right color, only to be disappointed to discover they were out of stock of her size. 

This sales assistant was a pleasure to deal with. “No problem, let’s just take a look on this tablet and if they are in stock at another branch we can get them to you by Monday….” She even tried to upsell us to another pair when my wife commented that she also liked another style she saw as the assistant used the tablet to search for the shoes. The rest is history. My wife got the shoes she wanted and the car was purchased from another dealership.

The first example raises a number of questions: what training did the car salesperson have when the digital sales tool was introduced? More importantly what ongoing training is in place to build the skill level? Why was there not a simple data-capture question when he went to use it? Does this person have the right attitude to be in sales?

The shoe salesperson, on the other hand, clearly knew how to use the digital tool to secure and possibly increase the customer spend. She also secured enough data to keep my wife on their mailing list.

Field sales people and digital

Salespeople often blame marketers for not being in touch with reality, whilst marketers often point the finger of blame at the salespeople when a campaign doesn’t have the success they had hoped for.

These two functions have to work closer than ever before, when building “stories” and additional sales tools. They need to be sitting down together, planning together and using their “Collective Intelligence” to stand out from the crowd. Today’s customer is far better informed than they were a few years ago.

To keep the customer-centric approach, sales and marketing should be looking at how to help the customer buy, rather than focusing on ‘helping the salesperson sell’.

To continually produce more and more sophisticated sales tools in order to be technologically ahead of the competition is good. However, if there is not enough investment in teaching the people why and how to use them, then are we not just spending money to support the company ego?

On a recent field visit with a salesperson, who was equipped with the latest digital tools, Stephen was fascinated to see that he used the tablet to rest his paper on while he wrote some notes. He then finally opened it to check the date of his next visit.

At no stage during the interaction with the client/customer did he use the tablet to assist the sales process, either by way of demonstration or reinforcing a message. Rather than a smartphone, it is a dumb tablet. 

There is still a long way to go and much work to be done before digital tools are having the desired impact and adding value to the sales process in the way that many companies hope for.

Co-author Stephen Gresty is owner of coaching and training consultancy Stephen Gresty R.O.I Ltd.