- The first is based on necessity. Decision makers in both B2C and B2B organisations have adopted digital lifestyles as individual consumers and now apply the same outlook and skills in their professional lives.
- Secondly, social engagement allows local brands to appear global and global firms to reach local. This means SMEs have similar branding reach as their larger competitors: an unheard of opportunity even a decade ago.
- Finally this is the way we now live. A digital lifestyle is pervasive across all generations even if most concentrated in the Generation Y workforce.
In summary, organisations that fail to engage its stakeholders in relevant ways risk losing talent and revenue in equal measure.
What Are We Talking About?
Before we explore the full impact that social and digital culture has on an organisation, let’s create some clarity around what these terms mean. Let’s start with ‘social’.
The essence of social engagement is that it takes place in a public rather than private context. This means all communication is visible and anyone can comment and extend the velocity and reach of a communication by amplifying via their own social networks.
As such, social channels are better suited to dialogue than broadcast. They invite participation. Organisations can therefore expect a rich mix of opinion and enquiry as ongoing flow once they become engaged socially. We will explore later on how to tap into this and extract what is relevant.
Digital is a more slippery definition to pin down. Technically, it is the generation after analogue. Think TV transmission to the way enterprise communications are encoded and distributed. In both cases the business case is the ability to deliver content more cheaply. Digital is less bulky than analogue.
For some markets it signifies new distribution models. Music has moved from vinyl to silver disc, onto downloadable then streaming format. Throughout that journey it has been called digital.
Digital can also mean next generation. In the world of marketing, digital agencies are the ones on fast path growth. Equivalent roles have popped up within organisations. The latest c suite role you can aspire too is ‘chief digital officer’. Meanwhile McKinsey and other consultancies offer an ongoing stream of advice on what becoming a digital organisation implies.
So digital is a word with many meanings. Yet they are all relevant to our investigation in the following respect. The arrival of digitally fuelled technologies has brought us the ubiquity of cloud services, the mobile connectivity of smartphones and the new consumer behaviours of social networks. This has changed the way business takes place. And all this is taking us into uncharted waters.
Even so, some believe we are still at the very early stages of this transformation in terms of how we live and work. For instance one of the emerging strands that build on everything just mentioned is the so called Internet of Things (IoT).
This is the phenomena of connecting the world of manufactured goods to the internet. In this way an ongoing online link is established between provider, customer and object. Welcome to the world in which your car, air conditioning, projector, heating and lighting checks in for service before you even know it and generates performance data which in aggregate provides the content for big data analytics to tuck into. Another competency required to prosper in the digital age.
In getting to grips with all this it is important to appreciate that these are not distant trends affecting a few markets. This is a tsunami washing over every organisation in every country. The pace of change and the way it impacts culturally varies but that is about it.
In other words we are at one of those tidal moments in which markets dissolve and are reborn. We have all lived off the back of the last one which we know as the industrial revolution. It created the UK in ways we can still recognise today in terms of markets, competences and brands. The good news is that the current digital revolution offers equal opportunity for any entrepreneurial SME.
What Is Different? What Is Constant?
If you ask seasoned customer service leaders who have now weathered 3+ years engaging with customers on social channels, they will often emphasize how similar things are to the legacy world of 1:1 service resolution. You still need people, metrics, technology and workflow. Their experience is ‘full circle’. What they tend to forget is the experience of first setting out on that journey and how they had to acclimatise to the speed and unpredictability of doing business in public.
For those still at the first hurdle, it all looks daunting and somewhat frightening given the scare stories that become amplified via popular media. Indeed this is one of the prices that come with being a socially connected brand. The consequences of your behaviour are much greater since they are visible and open to scrutiny.
Do something well and expect to enjoy the benefits of word of mouth. Screw up and expect the same potential amplification. Exploiting the upside and minimising the downside is just one of the new skills social brands have to develop and become comfortable with.
This has resulted in customer service enjoying a heightened profile within organisations with elite social teams operating more often than not within the infrastructure and management of customer service. The visibility of these types of interaction has put the quality of a brand’s service on the strategic agenda in new ways.
For many years the executive have typically discussed customer service as no more than a cost reduction opportunity. Unaware it had much additional value. Social analytics,(the activity of listening to customers on social networks), together with the more slowly advancing interaction analytics has made the content of service requests visible and actionable for the first time.
This has turned heads at senior level and started a new awareness of the challenges. For instance, it is now being slowly realised that high Csat and NPS scores do not necessarily provide an accurate reading of the real time customer sentiment.
As mentioned, some brands have responded with dedicated teams and upgraded workflow to improve responsiveness and start to use successful service interactions as ‘word of mouth’ opportunities.
Others are still content to allow marketing to hold the keys and provide occasional intervention when they are not absorbed with other tasks. But as customers increasingly use social channels and expect a reliable service, it remains to be seen if this marketing led approach can survive.
What else has the visibility of service catalysed at senior level?
Continuous improvement has received a boost from the all too obvious fact that service and product failures are paraded in public for other customers, potential customers and of course competitors to witness. It does not require much brain power to conclude that repeatable public failure is a turn off to customers and a gift to competitors.
Indeed ‘social poaching’ is fast catching on. This is the practice of rival brands reaching out to disaffected customers who have yet to be helped with their issue and promising a greener grass on their side of the fence. This real time intervention aided by the ever watching eye of social listening platforms offers a glimpse into the new standards required to survive in this information rich, real time world.
This brings us neatly on to a quick review of the other major customer facing teams. What is now different in the world of sales and marketing?
Quite a lot is the short answer. That cocktail of cloud, smartphones and social networks mentioned earlier has empowered both brands and customers in equal measure. This can be seen most clearly in sectors in which digital and social has had most impact such as retail and travel.
Retailers have experienced the challenges of show rooming for some time now: the activity of checking competitor prices. Apparently 40% of UK customers do it while in store. When this trend first broke, a New York brand put up a sign outside their stores demanding a $10 tariff for those using a smartphone inside!
From that extremely negative reaction, we have now advanced to the stage of ibeacons and opt-in participation which allow customers and brands to engage real time while in store.
What’s the lesson here? Smart organisations are those who transform a challenge into an opportunity. While showrooming introduced a downside, it also offered high street retailers the opportunity to recognise and relate to individual customers for the very first time while in store.
This had only been possible for high end brands providing personal shoppers to high value customers. But now scalable personalisation is possible for high street chains: another characteristic of this new world.
Let’s did a little deeper into other aspects of the change. For instance, in both B2C and B2B the sales cycle is now quite different. Often customers only appear right at the end of the cycle. At that point they are fully researched on their options, price points and awareness of any ‘in use’ issues. The days in which the sales person could exclusively frame the brand promise are long gone.
It’s the same issue for marketers. Fifty years of candy coated copy has left customers prioritising the advice and experience of friends, family and online reviewers before in house sources. Marketers are under tremendous pressure to transform from a volume based, monologue style output to being relevant and truly engaging.
Yet old habits die hard and the expectation that the funnel is full to feed the sales team remains the dominant driver. Although we are now in the era of marketing automation and the quasi scientific world of lead scoring, in reality we are still anchored in a volume mindset that trusts mass marketing more than quality engagement.
And yet many want it to change. Indeed they recognise that the old ways have reduced effectiveness in a world in which the connectivity of social and digital communication has shortened market life cycles and potentially killed loyalty.
So what is the answer?
Gazing Into The Future
In this post we have skimmed over a number of new opportunities and competencies which characterise digital and social behaviours. There is movement for sure. Yet most organisations are not ready to exploit them fully because they remain locked into a legacy operating model.
What happens next is the front line of the race to become digitally competent businesses. It is all about making deeper and more profound decisions about how to organise and run a business. If it is not command and control within rigid functional organisational life what is it?
My best guess is that that silo based responses have to give way to a single agenda approach that unites all customer teams in a life cycle response to their customers’ needs. This will help make them sufficiently fast and responsive as the speed of engagement between customers and brands continues to pick up pace.
Maybe things go even further. What if global sized organisations regrouped into agile teams of 300: the magic number which the military have always recognised as optimal for getting the best team performance. Enabled through a common infrastructure, each group hunts as fast as a start up. That would take guts to pull off!
Right at the centre of this debate is the culture and mindset of how a business should run. Authority, decisions and innovation have always flowed from the inside out. Early adopters have recognised that in truth the opposite is now true. Command and control is poor at nurturing the right kind of behaviour and must be left behind.
In its place new identities for top teams are being trialled. These include acting as facilitator and sponsor with a surrendering of micromanagement in favour of true leadership and the establishment of high trust/high performance culture.
In other words it’s all about doing what management gurus have insisted on for the past fifty years. The only difference being it is no longer optional, instead it’s table stakes. In a globally scaled market, the likelihood of having to compete with a ‘first direct’, a ‘John Lewis’ or a ‘Zappos’ is greatly increased. It could just as well be an Amazon or Google ready to plunder new sectors which happens to house your organisation.
Digital is here. Have you arrived as an SME?