Businesses and marketers have long been quick to give lip service to the paramount importance of the customer. You’ll get no argument on that notion from David Rogers, the executive director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School. But he would suggest you give some thought to who your customer is.
Your customer is not an individual, Rogers says; it’s a network. He’s taken that belief and codified it in “The Network is Your Customer,” a book that shows businesses both large and small how they can translate that insight into five strategies to help them thrive in a digital age.
“The point of my book is that we need to revisit who our customer is,” Rogers told BusinessNewsDaily. “There’s been a relatively dramatic shift. Customers are not just a bunch of people waiting to hear from you. They’re communicating with each other and with us. Customer word of mouth has always been important. But it’s more important today.”
When he says that the network is your customer, Rogers is talking about a network of people, not a network of computers. The customer network, he said, is dynamic, interactive and participatory. Like a colony of honeybees, they depend on constant communication with the swarm. These consumers are constantly responding, connecting and sharing among themselves and the businesses that play a role in their lives.
For businesses to succeed today, Rogers said, it’s no longer enough to be customer-focused; you have to be customer-network-focused as well. And you ignore the network at your peril.
Rogers cites the example of a consumer-network-turned-ugly that occurred when United Airlines (UA) damaged a guitar belonging to singer-songwriter Dave Carroll and was slow to make good. After receiving what he felt was nine months of buck-passing on being compensated, Carroll took to YouTube in 2009 with a comic musical takedown of United’s customer service.
Within months the video had been played by more than 5 million viewers (today, that figure stands at close to 10 million), who didn’t see the humor in UA’s treatment of Carroll. The story was carried by major media, including CNN, the New York Times and Rolling Stone magazine, and resulted in his appearance on the TV show “The View” with Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar, Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Sherri Shepherd.
The airline took a major hit to its reputation and eventually apologized (Carroll refused compensation) and announced revised policies. It all would have been preventable if United had paid attention to the customer before he took his case to the network.
That would have entailed, Rogers told BusinessNewsDaily, paying close attention to five customer behaviors and developing strategies that give them more than lip service — access, engage, customize, connect and collaborate.
Customers today live in an always-on digital world. Customers in networks, Rogers said, seek to freely access digital data, content and interactions. We want to do it as quickly and easily as possible. Businesses, Rogers said, need to be faster, easier, always on and everywhere to win these network customers.
Rogers points to Salman Khan, a hedge fund analyst in Boston, who created videos to tutor his cousins when they were students in New Orleans. When he began
posting these videos and other tutorials on YouTube, his courses started attracting students from around the world who were attracted by the ability to interact with the material on their own terms and time.
Khan had met the networked consumer where he lived and discovered the basis for a new business. By the time he quit his hedge fund job to focus on his nonprofit Khan Academy, his 1,400 instructive videos were attracting more than 200,000 unique visitors a month.
“One guy in his living room created a tutoring service that people around the world can use,” Rogers said.
To engage the networked customer, businesses need to become a source of valued content. Hard sell, Rogers said, doesn’t apply.
“You’ve got to flip and take the customer perspective,” he said. “You have to get past the interruption model; it’s very different.”
The company Blendtec found a way to keep customers glued to their computer screens for what are essentially tongue-in-cheek product demos, Rogers said.
These high-concept, low-budget “Will it Blend?” videos feature company founder Tom Dickinson showing off his high-tech blenders by pulverizing everything from glow sticks and golf balls to Silly Putty and an iPhone.
The videos have attracted more than 80 million viewers, said Rogers, and are one of the biggest success stories in promoting a small business with online content.
In the world of networked customers, businesses need to tailor their offerings to make them adaptable to customer needs.
“As customers, we live more and more of our lives in digital media,” Rogers said. “We have become accustomed to having what we want. We’re going to have more and more companies offering one-off products. It’s applying the idea of a mashup to all sorts of businesses.”
London custom clothier Styleshake, he said, allows customers to customize dresses, tops, skirts and accessories. Kiva, a web startup based in San Francisco, matches individual donors with individual recipients to make microloans to pre-screened entrepreneurial families in Uganda and 183 countries around the world, Rogers said.
These one-off loans enable a lender to contribute to a famer in Peru who wants to buy a cow, for example, or a seamstress in Lebanon to buy a sewing machine to give her sister a job in her shop.
Businesses should work to become a part of their customers’ conversations, Rogers said. And that’s a two-way street.
“The old paradigm is unidirectional, the new one is conversational,” he said. “You want to listen and learn.”
Here, Rogers said, technology can be a great enabler. The Naked Pizza, a restaurant in New Orleans, turned its roadside billboard into an invitation to follow the restaurant on Twitter. The co-founder of the restaurant, Jeff Lead, told Rogers that 20 percent of Naked Pizza’s sales are now due to its presence on Twitter .
Collaboration is part of the networked customer’s DNA. Businesses that create a partnership with their customers and involve them at every stage of the enterprise have an opportunity to cement that relationship, Rogers said.
As with conversations, the glue of collaboration is mutuality; there has to be some reward for all partners in collaboration, whether that incentive is fame or fortune.
In 2008, Cisco announced its Innovation Prize and called for teams to identify billion-dollar business opportunities for the company’s Emerging Technologies Group. Cisco received more than 1,200 entries from around the world. The winners — a wife, husband and brother team that proposed creating a “smart grid” framework to reduce passive consumption of electricity — received $250,000 and the opportunity to work with Cisco on their project.
In return, Cisco was able to undertake a new project that it estimated could generate a billion dollars in revenue in five to seven years.
The key to capitalizing on these customer networks, said Rogers, is to be where you customers are and to make sure being there makes business sense.
“Social media has become the term du jour,” he said. “See what your customers are doing in any given medium. Make sure you have a business purpose, though. It’s not enough to be there. You have to be there with a purpose.”
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Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.