Drinking my coffee one recent Saturday morning, I was slightly startled by a headline in the weekend Review section of the Wall Street Journal entitled, “The Customer as a God.” Religious considerations aside, I was at once attracted and repelled.
But the snarky headline belied the author’s main premise that customers have more power than ever before. And, that power will only grow with the advent of vendor relationship management, a new field that promises to fully empower customers in taking full control of their information. In doing so, the author argued, we’ll break free from the tyranny of siloed privacy policies, multiple loyalty cards, and apps that would change our lives forever–if only we could connect all of our own “big data” to suit ourselves.
No doubt framing any situation as an epic struggle, in this case evil business v. vulnerable customer, attracts readers. But it got me thinking. Delivering a more personalized experience is the whole point of managing big data. What’s more, businesses that don’t put the customer first rarely stay intact long-term. I would argue that many successful companies are using not only technology, but practices behind the scenes to design products and services that make customers happier.
Case in point is the quiet revolution that’s well underway at SAP, otherwise known as design thinking. In talking with diverse teams in China, India, Germany, and Palo Alto, I’ve concluded they have one thing in common: they want to figure what customers really want by talking with them. What I found most interesting is that designers in the past didn’t necessarily talk with the people who would be using our software. IT departments took the lead in scoping out customers’ demands. Maybe that made sense in earlier times. These days design thinking has changed all that. The buffers are gone. Customers are more assured of getting what they want because they’ve had actual conversations with developers about how they work, their struggles large and small, and the business goals they’re trying to achieve. The dialogue continues within the development team itself. They’re using a process deliberately structured to extract ideas based on the unique expertise of each member. The customer rules while creativity flourishes.
Yes, the relationship between businesses and customers has changed and will evolve with new technologies and practices. But the networked, ‘always on’ world is too big for any of us to go it alone. No one group reigns supreme. Companies and customers have to work together.