2011: what is likely to stay the same?

Right now there are lots of people putting forward there views on what will be hot /new / different in 2011.  As I do not have a crystal ball and because I believe in the fundamentals, I am going to focus on the key themes that are not going to change in 2011.

Customer will continue using trusted resources to find information and make decisions

Customers live in a world that is full of suppliers, brands, products and services.  Choosing between them is difficult and there is always the concern around making the right choice.  So for low consideration products (the basics of food, drink, utilities, retail banking..) customers will simply continue using the brands that they use today. Some customers will continue to be tempted by ‘specials’ – to try other products, other brands, other suppliers.

For high consideration purchases, customers will turn to trusted sources: the internet, Google search, social network, other customers and independent sources.  Customers will particularly value trusted resources that take out or cut the hassle associated with doing all the research and coming to a decision.

Companies will continue to shoot themselves in the foot as the content and tools are often created by marketing.  And too many marketers are disconnected from the real lives of customers and their real needs.  Too often the need for spin outweighs the need to provide useful, informative, honest content.

Customers will continue to have the same needs around products

Most customers will continue to look for products that are easy to understand, easy to set-up, easy to use and which work as they expect them to work.  Some customers will pay a premium for products that are novel, beautiful and/or well designed.

Many products will fail to live up to customer expectations either because the marketing communications are misleading, or the product has not been well designed or because the customer has unrealistic expectations.  And this will result in calls into the contact centre and negative comments offline and online.

Customers will continue to look for, be attracted to, special offers

Direct marketers are the masters of special offers – they know that the right offers will drive purchases.  Human beings are drawn to all kinds of  special offers.  The offer can be around membership of an exclusive club, or a special edition product or simply one of a price discount.

Businesses will continue to offer attractive ‘specials’ to get new customers.  In the process they will continue to cut loyalty from existing customers and thus encourage them to move to competitors to get their special offers.

Customers will continue to look for and value good service

Customers live in a complex world where they have a lot more to juggle and less time to do it; a world where choosing the right products and solutions can be a tricky and time consuming task; a world where they need help in setting up and using products effectively.  For example, one time you could just go and buy a tv, try doing that now with the latest HD tvs.

As a result customers will continue to cry out for good service in the form of correct and informative marketing material, customer centred sales advice, convenient product delivery, ease of product set-up and use, accurate billing, easy access to the right people in the company to deal with problems and issue and responsive caring customer service.

Many companies will continue to give less than good service because of the internal, silo centred, efficiency oriented metrics, processes and culture.

Companies will continue to focus on the shiny new stuff and neglect the basics

Time and again companies are attracted to the shiny new stuff, the silver bullets, the miracle cures etc.  Social media, mobile, location-based services, group buying (Groupon), customer experience – are examples of the latest shiny objects

In the process, companies will neglect the basics such as making good easy to use products, easy to use websites, improving the delivery process so you don’t have to take a full day off work, sorting out issues that prevent sales and customer service staff delivering the kind of service that customers expect etc. Here is an example of neglecting the basics: Toyota Just Doesn’t Get It

Companies will continue to focus on the sell side of the business at the expense of the service side

The majority of companies will continue to focus their best people and the bulk of their money on the areas of the business that generate or promise to generate revenue. Revenue and market share growth are the top priorities of the C-suite in most companies.

These companies will also continue to spend money on products and services that promise to cut operating costs – thus boosting profits.  That means more investments in technology and less in people – especially those that actually interact with and serve customers.

It also means that companies will continue to focus on getting new customers than on keep existing customers through good service and fair treatment. This is partly because the it is easy to show the return on getting customer and difficult to show the return on retaining customers.

Companies will continue not to embrace and make effective use of social technologies

The philosophy – transparency, openness, interaction, connectivity, sharing, participation, co-creation etc – of social is fundamentally at odds with the command and control philosophy that is at the heart of almost all businesses.  The powerful love to exercise power – this applies to all kinds of institutions including corporations.  And it applies to the C-suite executives.

This clash of idealogies and operating practices will stop the majority of companies from harvesting the true promise of social technologies:  transforming the way that work is done – collaboratively between employees, customers, suppliers, partner etc – within the enterprise.

Instead companies  will continue to dabble in social media treating this as simply another marketing and customer research channel.  Does this remind you how digital marketing and ecommerce operations were treated?  And how some are still treated today?

Companies will continue to talk about innovation and customer experience tranformation and yet fail to deliver

Whilst every company wants to the fruits of innovation very few are willing to go through the birthing process and experience the pains of giving birth to these innovations.

It is no easy matter to make the silo’s work together.  It is no easy matter to change the technology infrastructure – most companies still do not have a single customer view despite the mountains of ink on that subject over the last ten years.  It is no easy matter to change the culture of the company.  It is no easy matter to give up the practices that are resulting in ‘bad profits’ and recapture these profits by creating products and services that customers value.  And there is absolutely no incentive when you are the category leader or the market is dominated by up to four big companies.

The task of category level innovation will continue to fall on companies that specialise in this (e.g. Apple, Virgin) or newcomers that have no investment in the existing way of doing things (e.g. Metro Bank, Groupon).

Great performers focus relentlessly on perfecting the basics

In pursuit of the sizzle too many companies especially those that are marketing communications driven forget the steak – the product/service the customer will actually experience.

Over 10 years ago I co-developed (with my fellow consultants) a customer relationship strategy for an established telco.  This was a brand that regularly was perceived as having a poor quality network and this was in part due to weaknesses at the retail stores (taking on customers in areas that had a poor quality signal) and in the customer services function – this information came directly from the customer base.

If this was not enough spur to action there was information that showed that the customers of a MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) rated this MVNO very highly in terms of quality of network and in terms of customer service.  Given that the MVNO was piggy backing on the infrastructure built and operated by the established telco, this finding should have been a wake up call to get the basics right: only sign up the right customers and then provide excellent service when customers rung Customer Services for help.

Instead of focussing on the basics, senior management were focussed on all things internet.  Why?  At the time the Internet was sexy and any company that had an internet strategy increased its share price, usually dramatically, overnight.  Meanwhile, what really mattered to new and existing customers continued to take a back seat.  And the smarter competitors continued to pull ahead and take market share.

In 2010, the situation has not changed much.  Many companies continue to do the same: ignore the basics and focus on the latest in-thing.  In the latest email that I have received from Drayton Bird (a direct marketing legend)., he shares the following story:

“Recently, after scrupulous research over many months, my partner Marta decided to buy a new flat screen TV, which she did through Amazon.   They use Parcelforce – “proud winners of Business in The Community’s Healthy Workplaces Award 2006”, who also seem rather excited because “Hitwise have recognised our online developments this year”.

It’s good to know they’re all slaving away in such a splendid environment and such hot stuff on-line, though I wonder what exactly “on-line developments” are.  It was their touching attention to things that don’t really matter to their customers that prompted my heading. Because if you want to talk to them there is even a text phone number for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

But what if, like Marta, you want to get a TV set delivered?

What if they’re so useless they can’t tell you even vaguely when it is likely to arrive – just any time between 8:00 am and 6 p.m. on a certain day?

And what if they couldn’t even get the day right – so you spend 10 hours waiting – and it still hasn’t arrived?

Then, what if the much-praised on-line developments tell you it’s just arrived at 7:34 pm – which you know is a lie because you and two other people are looking out of the window?

And what if after you (eventually) get a reply from somebody on the phone – during a call you’re paying for – which confirms that they do indeed only deliver – or in this case fail to deliver – between 8 and 6?

What then?

Well, you hang around the next morning till it does arrive.

Then you get an e-mail saying “Thank you for using our website” – with an apology, kind regards and of course details of the deaf phone number I mentioned, signed by an “Internet Advisor”.

Hey, guess what, Parcelforce? I don’t want internet advice. There are plenty of people like BT Broadband screwing me around on-line already, and they need no help from you.

I want you to deliver things. That’s all you have to do. That’s why Amazon (mistakenly, it seems) use you……”

To paraphrase one of my favourite characters (Richard Feynman): Reality must take precedence over public relations, for customers cannot be fooled.