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Customer empowerment shifts enterprises' focus, sparks innovation

Companies need to take a data-driven approach to marketing, sales and product development to stay ahead of the customer empowerment curve.

The CIO may sit at the top of the enterprise, but in some industries, rapid consumer adoption of cloud, social and mobile technologies has positioned the customer at the center. As the customer empowerment trend takes hold, companies must find new ways to reach and retain them, according to Roger Gurnani, CIO at Verizon Communications.

"[Customers] have access to vast amounts of information," Gurnani said. "They also have a stronger voice. They're collaborating with other consumers on product reviews and customer forums."

Gurnani spoke on a panel, Leading the Digital Enterprise, at the recent 2014 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. Other panelists included Adriana Karaboutis, global CIO at Dell, who agreed that this digital shift in the consumer space creates a challenge and an opportunity. In an increasingly complex market, companies can embrace tools that help them gather, analyze and react to customer data in order to remain competitive.

"Data is the new currency in this digital world that's going to help us have insight so that we can market, sell and change our product offerings based on what we know," Karaboutis said. "The only way to gain those insights is to embrace digital technologies."

Reach customers where they live

Companies must also embrace a different customer engagement model that extends into customers' homes, providing an immediate view on their habits and needs. "The next wave of innovation is looking at customer-immersive channels," Gurnani said.

He used the example of Verizon customers purchasing multiple new devices during the holiday season. Verizon's FiOS service detected the new devices and helped customers connect them. Then, Verizon was able to recommend upgrades based on the customers' increased bandwidth needs. "We immersed ourselves into the experience and lives of our customers," he said.

Karaboutis also alluded to the interconnectedness not only of traditional mobile devices, but of an increasing number of objects that will provide even more data for companies to gather and digest. "It's not just the typical SMAC -- social, mobile, analytics, cloud -- it's nanorobots, it's wearables, it's ingestables." This growing network of things, she said, will allow an "intimate conversation" with the customer that will enable more targeted marketing, selling and product development.

Customer insights support intelligent innovation

The panel's focus on using customer insights to inform business decisions and even spark product ideas underscored that change within the enterprise must be spurred by data and business value, not trends and whims.

"Technology innovation only works if it creates business value," said Madge Meyer, a leadership and innovation consultant who formerly served as chief innovation officer at State Street in Boston, Massachusetts. "Technical people can miss this. A lot of people change for the sake of change."

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Praveen Ramanathan, CEO of Ayantek, a digital marketing consultancy in Bedford, Mass., works with companies that struggle to compete given the growing chatter in today's market. He said the daily onslaught of information that customers and employees face, particularly on social media, makes it difficult for companies to find a competitive voice for their products and services.

Ramanathan stressed that observing and tracking the problem is the first, most critical step. "Then you add tools that can help address the problem," he said. "But think about who you are as an organization and talk to people within the organization. Every company has core values, but what we don't always do is connect the technology back to those core values."

Engaging internal customers

The needs of people in an enterprise didn't go unnoticed by Gurnani and Karaboutis. The consumerization effect extends beyond a company's customers to its employees as well. To retain talent and foster innovation, companies may need to regard employees as tech-savvy internal customers, especially as the digital natives of Generation Z enter the workforce.

"Our employees are going through the same transformation [as our customers]," Gurnani said. "They want to have information readily available; they want mobile tools; they want to be always connected; they want to have a say in the big decisions."

As Karaboutis put it, "How can you expect employees to have a life of grabbing, getting, downloading, living, being able to provide insights -- and then when they come into work, forget all of that and go brain-dead?"

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