The customer is always right (these days, more often than not)

Organisations are reshaping their interactions with customers in the digital age. What does that mean for designers?

grenville main idealogIn the latest issue of Idealog, Designworks CEO Sven Baker talks about the need for organisations to transform in what he labelled a post brand world.

“Companies can no longer communicate their way out of the challenges they face . You can’t just change the message, you have to change the business.”

First up I have to say I totally agree – it's a good, strong and timely sentiment – however in our experience, while organisational change is often driven by the business, more often than not these days it is likely to be part of an incremental, dawning awareness of the power of today's customer.

Customers wield more power than they ever have and that power is only going to increase. Partly it’s the demographic – making New Zealand incredibly more diverse than when Sven and I grew up. Partly it’s a generational thing – today’s young adults expect and demand more and better service than we and our parents ever did.

But mostly it's digital – the disaggregation of communication channels that is destroying the emphasis on mass advertising. The internet provides endless opportunities for real time interaction between customers and organisations with social media connecting and empowering networks of digital natives. Push out a less than stellar product, a less than fair price, an inconsistent experience or even downright bad service and your customers will tell their friends – in their thousands.

Against this backdrop organisations are having to reshape all their interactions with customers. It is this reality that is changing the application of design. As designers we can no longer be simply engrossed with the artefact – whether that is an advertisement, a piece of communication, a product, an environment, an interface, a conversation. We have to have a working knowledge of them all – but just as importantly we have to have a deep understanding of the customer in order to shape each interaction and experience in their best interest.

To design customer experiences in this way requires you to have a clear view of the business imperatives of the interaction and the broader strategy shaping them. If you can make that strategy customer-centric – all the better.

We see a lot of organisations adopting an incremental approach to this challenge, one touchpoint, one enthusiast at a time. Organisation-wide transformation is a rare phenomenon, but successful innovations in one area can be the catalyst for more widespread enthusiasm and broader uptake – eventually leading to all the ideal growing conditions for transformational change.

Sven talked about the ideal growing conditions for business transformation. I'd like to offer a couple of other elements for any successful transformation.

1: Deep customer empathy – by placing customer needs and goals at the heart of your thinking, you'll be transforming in the most commercially powerful direction, one where your business requirements are balanced to meet customer requirements, and quite possibly will have the strongest differentiation in how you define your value proposition and deliver your product and service experience.

2: Design thinking – that virtuous marriage of customer-centred, business relevant innovation, deployed at the interface with the customer and in their interest. It's the focus at the interface where change is at its most rampant, and where digital channels have shown up the leaders and laggers most glaringly. Design thinking requires an ability to bring discipline and rigour to the way you adapt to, or totally embrace change for success.

However it happens, we all have to learn the new rules of customer engagement – and continually re-learn them as continuing customer power and leaps in digital innovation shift the goalposts. As we see it, you have to let the outside in (listen to customers) before you change from the inside out.

Grenville Main is managing director of customer experience design consultancy DNA, a rabid collector and proud owner of the most obscenely messy desk in each of DNA's offices.

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