2019: the year of the customer
Across every industry in every market, one thing has become clear in 2019: this is the year of the customer. Ubiquitous advertising, economic discomfort in a shrinking middle class, more ways than ever for people to self-determine the companies they deal with, a hunger for on-demand and personalised products and services, and a younger consumer class grown increasingly distrustful of an unfair capitalist system, are all conspiring to firmly put the ball back in the court of corporations when it comes to attracting and retaining a customer base.
Back in 2018, James Paine, the Founder of West Realty Advisors wrote, in a piece for Inc, that “twenty years ago, if you paid for a product or service and you weren't happy with what you received, the best you could hope for was that if you sent in a letter of complaint, you'd eventually receive a refund. You could tell a couple of friends and maybe they'd tell their friends, but that was about it. Nowadays, though, if a customer has a bad experience then they can post about it online, and if they post about it online then it can go viral and even seriously damage the overall value of your brand. After all, all it took was one tweet from Kylie Jenner to knock US$1.3bn off Snapchat's valuation.”
The message from consumers is clear: “treat us right or perish.”
This month, Gigabit Magazine explores the strategies being adopted by companies that want not simply to survive this age of seamless consumer experience, but to thrive in it.
Victoria Holt, CEO of digital manufacturer Protolabs, agrees that customer expectations in her industry have changed over the past decade. “People expect improvements at a pretty fast clip these days. So, being able to very quickly design, prototype and launch products is a critical success factor for manufacturers today,” she explains, adding that “there's more mass-customisation too, which is another thing that not only requires rapid innovation, but the capacity to produce products in lower quantities as you customise them for specific end uses. Again, this lends itself to a more digitalised manufacturing process.” This emphasis on harnessing the power of digital transformation is part and parcel with the ouroboric relationship between the company and customer. Companies digitally transform to offer products that are more personalised and readily available, and in return, this drives customer expectations and the standards are becoming more exacting every year as the customers take more and more control.
“For the last 50 years, software development has been specification-centric. Teams created software that complied with a specification. That just doesn’t work anymore,” says Antony Edwards, Chief Operating Officer of artificial intelligence, analytics and software solutions company, Eggplant. “Software teams need to use customer analytics to become user-centric and create software that delights users and drives business outcomes.” Edwards’ observations are backed by a recent white paper from Adobe. Noting that the most successful modern companies are the ones that have digitally transformed themselves, Adobe warns that “transformation needs to be driven with a purpose. For top businesses, that purpose is customer experience.” Companies that place customer experience at the top of their list of priorities are more successful than those who adopt a ‘push’ mentality.
But what do those customers want? High level concepts like “customisability” and “on-demand” are a good start, but to better understand the specific things consumers want from them, successful companies are doubling down on analytics and diverting more and more resources, both to understanding their consumers and to providing a seamless experience. “Fast food stores are employing user analytics to understand how their staff are using point-of-sale terminals and then using this information to update the point-of-sale terminal so that customers are served faster,” says Edwards. “Retailers are using a combination of user and technical analytics to understand how technical factors such as website speed and design factors such as high-resolution graphics, impact purchases. They then feed this automatically back into their software development to optimize revenue.” Across the board, industry leaders are moving as one towards a more informed company-customer relationship. In Gartner’s recent Customer Experience Trends Survey, it was revealed that, in 2018, two-thirds of companies increased their customer experience technology investments, with 52% reporting that they intended to increase spending further in 2019. In last year’s survey, Gartner found that 81% of companies expect customer experience to be the most important competition metric by 2020.
Seeking to perfect the customer experience is going to become an even greater point of differentiation for companies in the next few years. Social media is a valuable tool for companies to understand, sell to and interact with their customer bases, but the sword swings both ways. Debacles like Fyre Festival and Kylie Jenner’s Snapchat Tweet prove that brands have nowhere to hide anymore; the customer experience must be seamless, curated and on-demand. Companies that want to succeed in what may become the Decade of the Customer need expert help - a fact that means the global Customer Experience Analytics Market is expected to grow to around $12bn by 2023 - and to embrace the power of digital. Vinod Muthukrishnan, co-founder and CEO of customer experience management software company CloudCherry, lives this reality every day. “Customer retention is lower than it ever has been. The millennial audience is actually much more conscious of business ethics, the environment and corporate social responsibility than the two generations before it, mine included,” he explains. When asked about the key to a great customer experience, Muthukrishnan said: “We're going back to the basics. In many ways, the more digitisation we do, the more humanisation the customer demands. You can use machine learning, you can use bots - you do whatever, as long as it's aimed at actually giving that customer a more personal experience.”
Business Chief Legend: Ho Ching, CEO of Temasek
Ask Singaporeans who Ho Ching is, and the majority will answer the ‘wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’. And that’s certainly true. However, she’s also the CEO of Temasek Holdings, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, and one of the world’s largest investment companies.
Well, she is until October 1, 2021, as she recently announced she would be retiring following 16 years as CEO of the investment giant.
Since taking the reins in 2004, two years after joining Temasek as Executive Director, Ho has gradually transformed what was an investment firm wholly owned by Singapore’s Government into an active investor worldwide, splashing out on sectors like life sciences and tech, expanding its physical footprint with 11 offices worldwide (from London to Mumbai to San Francisco) and delivering growth of US$120 billion between 2010-2020.
Described by Temasek chairman Lim Boon Heng as having taken “bold steps to open new pathways in finding the character of the organisations”, Ho is credited with building Temasek’s international portfolio, with China recently surpassing Singapore for the first time.
As global a footprint as Ho may have however, she has her feet firmly planted on Singapore soil and is committed to this tiny city-state where she was not only educated (excluding a year at Stanford) but has remained throughout her long and illustrious career – first as an engineer at the Ministry of Defence in 1976, where she met her husband, and most notably as CEO of Singapore Technologies, where she spent a decade, and where she is credited with repositioning and growing the group into the largest listed defence engineering company in Asia.
It’s little wonder Ho has featured on Forbes’ annual World’s Most Powerful Women list for the past 16 years, in 2007 as the third most powerful woman in business outside the US, and in 2020 at #30 worldwide.
But it’s not all business. Ho has a strong track record in Singapore public service, serving as chairman of the Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research and as deputy chairman of the Economic Development Board; and is a committed philanthropist with a focus on learning difficulties and healthcare.
As the pandemic kicked off, she not only led active investments in technology and life sciences, with German COVID-19 vaccine developer BioNTech among the most recent additions to Temasek’s portfolio, but through the Temasek Foundation – the firm’s philanthropic arm which supports vulnerable groups close to Ho’s heart, handed out hand sanitiser and face masks.
So, you would be forgiven for thinking that at age 68, Ho might simply relax. But in March 2021, just as she announced her retirement from Temasek, Ho joined the Board of Directors of Wellcome Leap, a US-based non-profit organisation that’s dedicated to accelerating innovations in global health. Not ready to put her firmly grounded feet up yet it seems.