Who's Calling The Shots?

Take a moment. Breathe deeply.

Now summon up a clear mental picture of your typical customer. Is it a he or a she? Is she in a dark-hued power suit? Is this a younger person or someone with a little gray around the temples? Is he up to his neck in trade publications and other sources of product research? Are they smiling or slightly frowning?

Pause. Add fangs. There now you understand how the web is transforming customer relationships. The fact is that soon your customers will not relate to you on the same terms. Translation: In the not-too-distant future, they’ll call the shots.

If you think they’ve been demanding and fickle thus far, get ready for more — only at web speed.

How come? Because the web is a venue for relatively painless comparison Shopping — just clicks away. Because the web, sometimes incorrectly, is becoming a symbol for “less expensive” and “convenient” in the popular mind. Because the web accelerates everything and increases customer expectations. (It’s hard not to want things NOW — customer support, answers to questions, etc. — because the fast-click medium is the message.)

Because business-to-business use of the web is transforming supply chains into real-time demand chains. Because competitors you know — and those you will come to know — are exploring business models that are entirely premised on the web’s strengths and economies.

(A few years ago, Barnes & Noble might just have laughed at something called Amazon.com. No laughter now. Amazon.com is currently setting its sights on an even grander retail vision that will take them well beyond books — and into court, I might add. Because Wal-Mart is suing them for raiding top talent.)

Your customer is (or will soon be) awash in web-mediated choices, selection, new services, value-adds, real-time discounting, and personalized offerings.

You may see this as just so much cyber-exaggeration. Or unnecessary fear mongering. After all, your customers are loyal. Your market is more staid than, say, tumultuous retail. Your suite of products is unmatched. Your brand reigns supreme.

Even in that enviable situation, there are ways that the web can vastly improve the value of your franchise. It is a new “customer face” — a new way of attaching customers to a more comprehensive and more personal brand experience. So why not grab those advantages and expand your leadership in this new arena?

Here’s your take-away. Prepare for what we call the “customer century.” For some, it is on the horizon and coming fast. For others — like PC makers and networking hardware companies and software providers — it’s been here for a few years.

If you take it to heart, it will radicalize your core business processes. You can derive startling new efficiencies, and, at the same time, wed your customers even more closely to all that you offer — and all that you want your brand to mean.

Unlike your customers, after all, you have no choice.

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