Are we listening to Digital Consumers?

By now you must have heard of the BCG report ‘The Internet’s New Billion’ and that just as Brazil, Russia, India, China, and Indonesia are the new engines of global growth, they are also the sources of the most dynamic changes in digital consumption in the world – a phenomenon that will grow only more pronounced over the next five years. Already, more than 610 million residents of these countries – which we call the BRICI markets – use the Internet regularly. That number will jump to 1.2 billion by 2015.

So what, many may ask, ‘how does my life change because of this?’

I don’t need to quote many of the researches you would have already seen from Forrester, Gartner and Jupiter stating that the era of “Push” is almost over and “Pull” is making it’s presence felt. Content, communication, collaboration is driving the new empowered customer.

We need to ask ourselves, In the era of increasing digital consumption, what are we doing to bring about this transformational change between our companies and the people who we deliver products/ services to?

But first, lets take a look at the digital consumer and whether we are ready for the opportunities and challenges this brings us?

Imagine, you reached home late and are hungry. Should you call for a pizza? Yes! Seems like a good idea. Will you now again look up a mobile phone or a pc? Possibly a phone. Now for the sake of this article look up your mobile phone and type in any pizza company. If you happen to reach their website, it will be impossible to read/ load and interact. Instead on searching if you allow Google to access your location, you will get the number of the pizza store nearest to you in a jiffy. No need to visit a website which won’t load or has a clunky interface.

Once you have enabled location, you should be able to pretty much find anything, the nearest hospital, the nearest movie hall and so on. But interestingly, most Indian companies have still not woken up to the fact that consumers don’t want to go to their websites or interfaces. Try to find the chemist store near you in South Delhi and you will be surprised to find that you can see the addresses of almost all local chemists on your phone, the branded ones are conspicuous in their absence! Buying medicine is so much easier as Google instantly throws up the names and phone numbers of the stores nearest to me.

Its not just about the location, there is more. Just, try to use your phone to pay your credit card bill or your phone bill. For most banks and surprisingly even for phone companies, it would be almost impossible to do and genuinely test your patience.

With 3G around the corner the hand held device will play a larger role in our lives than ever before. Can’t we look at access to our business and services from the customers perspective who is constantly on the move and wants access to information and service fundamentally new way?

India is the texting capital of the world. We have the largest number of mobile phones and a young population that sends out an astronomical number of text messages a day.

It is therefore impossible to believe that resolving customer service issues using a simple SMS is tough. I did a quick check on websites of durable companies, most of them don’t have websites that are mobile friendly. If you log in to their websites, most of them don’t open up or have heavy flash files. Finding a number where you can send an SMS to request for services is like finding a needle in a haystack. TATA Sky has taught us that you can buy a movie through a SMS. To watch a movie all you have to do is to check out the latest movie timings through your remote, send an SMS to the designated number and the movie starts. If you don’t want to send an SMS you can always call. But it is not just the SMS gateway to which one should give credit, but the smart combination of SMS, Television based prompts and a call centre that are responsible for a seamless and efficient experience.

The list goes on and on. Every single day most of us find that reaching companies that we have purchased from in the past is dependent largely on the call centre. The call centre on the other hand is full of people who struggle with internal processes, fast changing products and tariff plans and irritable consumers. While companies have tried to move some off the pressure from the call centres to web based self service systems and SMS gateways customer adoption in many cases has been slow.

The reason TATA Sky service works is because every channel of communication works seamlessly. The SMS gateway, the TV prompts, Web based self service interface and the call centre don’t work as independent hubs but as a single customer gateway that talks to each other.

The telecom service experience for most operators on the other hand asks for loads of patience, ineptness and a liberal dose of losing one’s cool. A simple task like disconnecting an Internet connection took me 6 months. Infact the absence of integration has reached such levels that customers of a telco were sent SMS messages informing them of a service outage and a call in number which was last valid 5 years back!

In the era of the ubiquitous call centre that was formed to answer every customer need, I somehow find myself developing a serious allergy to calling up and waiting endlessly to hear ‘your business is important to us, please wait as all operators are busy’ or the even more deeply annoying prompt that repeats the latest ad or promotional offer in an endless loop.

I find myself wondering why is it so hard for companies to look at things from the customer point of view? Is it organisational structure that is at fault, the various bits of technology that don’t talk to each other or a simple issue that service design was never considered while implementing these projects.

There is a very interesting Harvard article on ‘why your customers don’t want to talk to you’. The fundamental premise is that customers don’t really want deep meaningful/ conversational relationships with companies, instead most have a transactional relationship. If the transaction is efficient and painless and these days digitally savvy, self service oriented customers will reward you with loyalty.

We are moving to a world where the empowered customer is a reality and the command and control structure of companies that controlled all aspects of the chain are under threat. Can the CIO use this as an opportunity to truly develop transformational solutions?

If we were to change the perspective from ‘consumers care’ to empowering consumers wouldn’t we add genuine business value and design around the customer experience? Experiences touch the heart and to uniquely impact customers we need empathy with just the right dose of technological enablement and human interface.

Is the CIO listening?

First published in Dataquest October 15 Edition