How will you talk to your customers in 2020?

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Is the relationship between you and your customers an equal one? How will it continue to change over time? And how can you nurture a relationship that works for everyone?

To find out, we’ve been speaking to David Baker, a teacher at the School of Life and a contributor to Vodafone Global Enterprise’s industry-analysing report on workplace innovation: Breaking Boundaries: The Challenge of Technological Disruption.

Invaluable value

Is the customer always right? Following that old adage may be a good starting point when it comes to customer service, but it’s by no means a catchall representation for the way things are today. For starters, the likes of social media and an increased focus on ethical practices mean that the relationship between customer and business is now more transparent than it’s ever been.

But moreover, as David Baker explains, the customer’s sense of what meets their needs has entered totally uncharted waters:

“Customers have become very powerful,” he says. “We don’t expect to pay for anything anymore; the internet as a whole has given us the idea that information and services should be free. As a good example, there’s an interesting experiment around asking people how much they would be willing to pay for Google if it was a subscription service. You get an amazingly wide range of answers, from nothing up to half a million pounds, which shows that we’re not very good at understanding the value of the services we get these days – especially in the digital world.”

This, David says, is driving a change in not just how much, but how, consumers want to pay for things – which has helped lead to new business models and new ways of communicating. And it’s in communication where the parameters are changing; there is more give and take, putting businesses on a more level playing field with their customers. In many ways, as David reveals, that’s why it’s more important for businesses to ensure great customer experiences than ever...

“With social media and rating systems we have an amazingly simple set of tools to allow people to give public criticism of companies.” Because of this, it’s become vital for businesses to have the technology and processes in place to listen deeply to and analyse this new type of customer feedback. But is that enough?

“Companies are obviously very vulnerable to these ratings, mostly because consumers just want a quick fix, or the very best option. After all, in 2016, with many services now being offered for free, who’s going to use the second best offering?” All of which means that “companies are on the back foot.”

Where all this gets really interesting is that the staff doing the most communication with customers are, increasingly, becoming separate entities from the company itself. As David tells us, the need for businesses to adapt and evolve is forcing many to restructure their DNA, creating brand new paradigms in the process:

“One way that companies are evolving to survive the digital revolution is by becoming fantastically small. There’s a new business model in which a (traditionally large) corporation can now only have only half a dozen members of fulltime staff, and then hundreds or thousands of part-time suppliers acting in a self-employed capacity.

“That’s a very efficient company structure – it works like this in the feature films industry, where only a small number of people actually work full time for a company whilst a lot of crew members are hired on spec for each film.”

Another great example is Uber, one of the founders of the so-called ‘sharing economy’ that sees a (relatively) small core number of company employees bolstered by thousands of drivers who set their own hours. It’s a freeing system, and one that’s fundamentally disrupting the industry, but it comes at a cost when we talk about the relationship companies have with their customers:

“You’re relying on these suppliers to represent your company and its values,” says David, “and to understand your way of working.” Put simply? These members of staff who live on the fringe of a business can inadvertently be its biggest risk.

Turning to technology

To combat these issues, many companies are turning to emerging technology. AI chatbots, as an example, are proving to be a productive way for companies to offer instant, on-brand lines of communication with the customer, and that’s on top of also being able to proactively make bookings or deliver services.

Facebook Messenger already has a platform to allow companies to build chatbots upon, with the bots already available allowing customers to book hotels, call cabs, shop for clothes or search for specific news items through a single chat window. But, as Vodafone’s Breaking Boundaries report points out: “chatbots are a new technology and AI is by no means yet perfect,” and that “IT Directors will have to be able to advise marketing and sales staff on their potential.”

When used effectively and innovatively, technologies such as AI chatbots will also make the analysis of customer feedback more complex and give businesses actionable data to direct their future direction and focuses.

But alongside chatbots, other new technologies are also emerging to foil false criticisms and to help large companies ease some of the worst symptoms of this new customer/company relationship. “The insurance industry is already using algorithms to identify potentially fraudulent claims from a caller’s voice,” says the report as one example.

So, in reality, this challenge of adapting for the digital age and keeping customers not just satisfied, but happy is a winnable one. It just takes the right infrastructure, the right corporate mentality and the willingness to push the envelope. If you’d like to help your business achieve all of those things, you can find out lots more on the future of innovation in the workplace by downloading the Breaking Boundaries report below, or you can find out how Vodafone Global Enterprise’s extensive range of corporate services can help here.