Stuck in the middle
Much of the news coverage of Amazon’s decision to buy the Whole Foods grocery chain has focused how Amazon might disrupt the grocery business, or perhaps whether pharmacies or some other retailers would be its next target.
To me, the real message is that every business is rapidly becoming a technology business. The competitive edge of tomorrow doesn’t lie in what a company sells, but whether or not it can use the power of technology, and the power of its people, to create a brand-defining customer experience. Companies that can both deliver that experience consistently, and communicate the story of that experience effectively, will be the ones that disrupt the market – or, avoid being disrupted.
Let’s get personal
Thanks to the power of technology and data analysis, consumers have come to expect (and prefer) an immersive and highly personalized experience when delivered effectively. That’s true whether they are doing business in person or online, and it applies to services as well as products.
Companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google would seem to have an automatic advantage, because they can tap insights from billions of customer interactions. Yet, I’m convinced that every company can use technology as the foundation of a compelling customer experience – as long as it retains a strong human connection.
Rather than technology replacing people, it should enhance how a company’s people interact with customers. It should make the consumer’s experience not just personalized, but personal.
Apple’s approach, applied to apples
Take groceries. Only five percent of Americans buy their groceries online today, although it’s easy to do. Farmers markets likewise continue to boom. Why not take advantage of that and create a new kind of “in-person” experience with a grocery store managed and staffed like an Apple Store?
Yes, you can reduce head count and cost by using NFC technology to identify a customer, and put RFID tags on merchandise so that you can check out by just walking out. Yet, any retailer can do that. Redeploy those people throughout the store, though, and they can provide customers with personalized service they value. Armed with a mobile device, customer service agents would have instant access to information about a customer so they can do everything from making relevant suggestions to “remembering” what a customer bought before.
That’s a powerful way to put technology and people together to create a compelling retail customer experience, one that is both brand-defining and can’t be duplicated online. And it can work whether a company is offering lettuce, laptops or legal services.
The next challenge is communicating that experience – bringing the customers in and keeping them. Technology, ironically, has made this more difficult. Consumers increasingly self-select the “echo chambers” they inhabit online, choose their own constituencies, determine how and by whom they will be influenced. So it’s easier than ever to reach potential customers, but it’s much harder to influence them.
Just as the customer experience has become more personalized, so communication in the modern marketplace has to be tailored to each individual. The “customer experience” is just as important for communicators who want to tell an effective story and create a change in perception or behavior, as it is to the core business.
Selling the experience
It’s a challenge that I welcome, because it does require both smart use of technology and the personal relationships that have always been part of the work of communicators. It’s also a great story, worth telling. Rather than looking at technology to replace people, innovative companies can use it to replace the mundane, freeing people to do the work they can do that technology can’t.
More than that, it’s an approach that works not only in groceries, but also in countless industries that haven’t yet taken advantage of it. Airlines, financial services, health care, all could create far better customer experiences combining technology and the human element in the right way.
We know, as communicators who are interacting with people as our daily work, that the need for the human connection has never diminished. Even as technology streamlines the mundane aspects of our lives, it creates new possibilities for the human connection. That’s especially true for digital natives who have grown up with technology and its potential for letting them share thoughts, ideas and experiences with each other. The way we interact with them as communicators has to match that kind of immersive environment that’s based on technology but ends with the human touch.
In this world where every company is a technology company, our job as communicators is two-fold: Work with our clients to create that personalized customer experience, and then personalize the way we communicate it. The only limits are the imagination – something that’s very human indeed.