How does technology play a role here?
More and more CIOs are going to have to be responsible for helping their companies provide these information value-added services to go along with the products they already sell. I call them information supplements. Should customer service reps report to marketing, or to the CIO in charge of developing information supplements?
There's also a contribution companies can make in terms of response time to customers. In the past, you stopped to chat to a customer or he might be offended. Today, you can't simply assume there's one way to treat someone well. And you have to have a whole different kind of respect for his or her time. If you treat a customer as a valued customer, and respect that the time that they spend with you is an investment, it's the basis of a trusting relationship. So if you're a salesman, you preface something with the question, "Do you have five minutes?" and the person says no, he's only got three, well then you use three, don't use 10. But in many cases, folks don't do that, and I think in today's busy world that's a prime requirement. Technology can help you respond faster.
How about simply starting by improving the way a company automates its customer service?
I think you're seeing some changes, where on one side of the equation some companies have automated ordering, shipping and inventory handling to take the cost out of the operation. Some companies like Lands' End are reinvesting some of that cost-savings in these very well-trained, online customer service reps. I'm a cigar smoker. Order cigars online from Thompson Cigar in Florida, and it's all automated. But on the back end of that, if you want a recommendation for a new type of cigar, you can call somebody and get a human. So you're saving money using automated service on the order and delivery side, but Thompson is using what it saves with automation to pay for humans on the other side, to retain good customers and pamper them in order to compensate for the loss of humans elsewhere in the transaction.
You see that, too, in the employee-company relationship. When customer buying expectations begin to change, they start to splatter over into other aspects of people's lives where folks begin to see themselves as an empowered customer and also as an empowered employee. People will remain loyal to groups that treat them equitably and fairly. As long as there's equity and fairness in the transaction, I don't think loyalty is the real issue. But upset that for a second, and poof! People are off to the next store, to the next product, to the next workplace.
Charles Grantham is a research fellow at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley and the chief scientist of the Institute for the Study of Distributed Work. His latest book, Consumer Evolution: Nine Effective Strategies for Driving Business Growth, will be published later this year by John Wiley & Sons.