Companies have been talking about disruption for years. The word appears in every other top-level business meeting – yet the revolution hasn’t happened. Many businesses have little to show for it.
In truth, disruption needs more than enthusiasm. Without a strategy, organisations have simply transformed long, complicated paper processes into long, complicated online processes. We see this in online loan application forms, for example, which can prompt just as much time and effort as paper processes. In fact, poorly executed disruption creates an even bigger problem. The impressive front end makes a promise of speed and agility to the customer that the rest of the system can’t keep!
When I spoke to our SAS collaborators Peter Lavers and Sally Eaves – key influencers at the heart of technology thought leadership – in our recent thought-sharing event, we agreed there was an inherent problem at the heart of these failed "disruption" strategies. It’s a problem that’s become ever clearer in 2020: Businesses have lost sight of customers. In fact, as Peter Lavers put it, businesses are close to “disrupting themselves into oblivion.” Below, I delve into key points arising from our discussion: the state of disruption, and how to bring the focus back to customers.
COVID-19 has called time on half-hearted disruption
COVID-19 has shed light on how industries require agile, flexible, scalable systems to meet their customers’ needs. Consumers want fast access to simple, transparent information. They expect immediacy when it comes to responding to personal requirements and customer service in every aspect of their lives. This holds true whether a customer is applying for a mortgage holiday, an online home delivery or a smart meter appointment. Lockdowns forced consumers into digital channels. And they rightly expected to receive the same level of personalised service they might from speaking to a human. Unfortunately, such expectations have tested online systems and digital transformation programmes to their limits.
However, that is not even the main challenge. Scale and availability of online platforms is one thing. But getting access to the same level of personalised service online as you get through traditional processes is the bigger challenge. Today, digital options tend to offer a one-size-fits-all customer solution. This is at odds with a seamless, personalised service that suits each customer.
Companies obsessed with customer experience that put the customer at the heart of their decisions quickly found themselves with the upper hand. Their customer-centricity enabled them to access the right insights, deliver automated, hyper-personalised experiences at scale, and double-down on their resilience to deliver on their brand promise, regardless of the customer interaction channel. On the other hand, as Sally Eaves mentioned, companies where talk of disruption failed to translate into deep customer engagement have struggled to adapt. It’s not difficult to guess which approach gains long-lasting customer loyalty.
Customer-centric disruption is now the only way
Perhaps 2020’s greatest gift to businesses has been a forced reassessment of business priorities. Where once organisations relied on multimillion-pound advertising campaigns, they now have the ability to actually deliver on the brand promise. This has become the cornerstone of survival. The growing power of the connected consumer has enabled customers to influence a global audience with their "comments" or "likes." Customers are quick to share their thoughts and experiences about the brands they do business with. A resilient and future-proof business puts the customer at the heart of its decision making.
But what does a fully customer-centric business look like? These organisations deeply understand their customers through continuous and dynamic analysis of behaviours, needs, context and sentiment. They proactively engage with customers with relevant, personalised interactions regardless of the channel in which the customer chooses to interact.
Customer service more important than ever
Take customer service, for instance. In the name of disruption, organisations are seeking significant operational cost savings by proactively moving customers to digital channels and automating service enquiries with faceless chatbots. Many customers prefer to interact with digital channels. But organisations still force most of us to abandon our digital journey and pick up the phone if we want anything more than one-size-fits-all customer service. And many interactions still require the empathy that a human touch brings.
During the pandemic, meeting these customer requests has been more important than ever for businesses trying to keep up with the pace of change. As Sally Eaves stated, without technologies which give customers a human experience, organisations are damaging customer experiences. In turn, the customer could use review sites and social media to damage the company’s reputation irreparably. Ultimately, the customer is in control.
Our collaborators all agreed that there is huge power in developing a much deeper understanding of customers. Today’s machine learning algorithms can mine vast amounts of data to discover new customer segments and determine next-best actions. But organisations must do more than just keep these algorithms up to date and recalibrate them with new behaviours and trends. They must also respond and react in real time to new insights and behaviours whilst a customer is engaging with the brand.
Disruption doesn’t come from the top
With the case for customer-centric disruption made, how can businesses kick-start their new approach? The truth is that some of the best ideas for disruption come from the front line and those engaging directly with customers, rather than at the boardroom level, where executives are often multiple levels removed from the customer.
Businesses looking to disrupt in the right way following the pandemic should be asking questions that reach across departments:
- Do we truly understand our customers and their changing needs?
- Can we meet our customers in their channel of choice?
- To what extent can we deliver frictionless, omnichannel experiences?
- How can we identify and eliminate bottlenecks in the customer journey?
- How can we optimise the customer experience to meet our corporate and customer goals?
From here, businesses can look at their existing processes and approaches and identify and prioritise opportunities to optimise and improve.
Good disruption isn’t about ticking a box
In business, it’s difficult to avoid the pressure to disrupt for the sake of disruption. However, the path to making valuable changes starts with acknowledging that every disruptive action must happen where the customer needs it. Peter Lavers hit the nail on the head: "There needs to be an informed consensus that the customer wants change."