Top Challenges Facing Manufacturers In The Age Of The Customer

Mike Shields, CEO of eLogic, gives advice on how manufacturers can address some of the top challenges facing them in the Age of the Customer.

MBT: How has customer engagement in manufacturing changed over the past five years?

Mike Shields: Shifts in B2C practices over the past decade have spurred big changes, as customer engagement becomes a customer-centric and self-service model augmented by a broad range of new ways to interact. For B2B manufacturers, despite the initial lag, these same principles apply but are compounded by the more complex products and diverse sales and marketing channels. Like B2C, B2B manufacturers see their product-centric ‘go-to-market’ being replaced by a far richer customer engagement model that integrates marketing, product sales, and service life cycles. In this context, product-excellence and on-time delivery alone are no longer sufficient to attract and retain customers.

The new customer engagement model centers on self-service practices that enable prospective buyers and key influencers to do their homework well in advance of engaging manufacturers’ sales agents in their buying cycles. This new breed of well-informed and more self-sufficient buyer is likely to have narrowed their choices and researched your company before you are even aware of their needs. To win with this new buyer requires a shift to customer lifecycle engagement models that consider every aspect of your products and services, offering holistic and continual customer value over the entire life of the relationship.

MBT: What are the new rules for customer engagement in manufacturing?

Mike Shields: First of all, when we talk about 'rules' we are referring to the guidelines based on proven best practices from B2C that have been adapted to B2B manufacturing markets. These are the best ways to ensure that you succeed with your customer engagement transition.

There are five requirements, or ‘table stakes’ in the Age of the Customer for Manufacturing. First, be omni-channel by offering the full range of customer options, and you ensure that you meet customers' expectations for direct commerce, assisted-selling or fully supported relationship experiences in a device and location independent manner. Next, within your organization, be continuously well-informed and create insights, data stories and dashboards that surface your data in meaningful ways that drive actionable decisions for measureable results.

Third, leverage new ways to offer customers your best knowledge in every interaction, because cognitive and knowledge-based product and service support have become essential to ensure that customers are offered and select the right solutions. Don’t forget to add the ability to be collaborative, since self-service can be frustrating when the customer doesn't find what they need easily or whenever there are questions that require human interactions. Lastly, be seamless by establishing a common set of integrations between commerce, CRM, ERP and other distribution and support systems to ensure that the customer experience is satisfying, reliable, efficient and productive.

MBT: Which enabling technologies are shaping this new customer engagement model?

Mike Shields: Although technology alone cannot create success, it is the key enabler to the Age of the Customer. During this transition period, many companies shortsightedly choose the technologies of the past with ‘new labels’ that sound appealing. Truly transformative outcomes will embrace enabling technologies in a harmonious business model. Cloud platforms become the mainstay for all customer engagement, so adopt them for infrastructure, applications and systems. Cognitive Systems and smart technologies add ‘intelligence and context’ to make interactions easier and more reliable even for complex products and services.

Leverage Social to find, engage, and respond to customers in the channels where they participate. Technologies like chat and live interaction augment user experiences by engaging knowledge-workers, experts and service agents on an ‘as-needed’ basis. Reach customers with accurate targeting that meets their individual profiles and needs with predictive and persuasive analytics from Integrated Marketing. Employ the IOT to optimize the entire product lifecycle for customers and create loyalty and new demand through smart devices that send secure data to analytical models.

Also, realize that none of this technology matters in a silo. Adopt the latest agile integration platforms, or partner with an organization that specializes in using these integration tools to service manufacturers, to connect your enterprise platforms for a simplified flow of data and transactions across multiple apps, components and systems to get seamless customer engagement everywhere it matters. 

MBT: In a multi-channel world, who is the customer?

Mike Shields: Today's definition of a 'customer' includes anyone who supports, influences, selects and decides which of your products and services to consume. In a multi-channel world, the customer is multifaceted and increasingly influential. For manufacturers this includes channel partners, manufacturers’ reps, distributors, agents and brokers plus end-users, design or engineering consultants and various installation and maintenance contractors. This new customer engagement model must be responsive to every one of these channels and potential sources of demand, loyalty and engagement. The more complex the products (i.e. highly configurable or engineered) and sales channels, the more “customers” a manufacturer will need to be truly engaged with across the lifecycle.

MBT: What are the most common risks and failures for manufacturers when selecting new customer engagement technologies?

Mike Shields: The shift to digital customer engagement, like the adoption of LEAN and TQM principles, requires organization-wide, top to bottom commitment. The greatest risks are in treating this change as a technology upgrade, instead of the business transformation to new practices, information models and enabling technologies. Digital customer engagement is a strategy and needs its place in the overall strategic plan with a multi-year program and roadmaps. That strategy then has to stay in focus during the technology evaluation and application process. All too often, uninformed or inexperienced stakeholders conduct a software evaluation based on a template and score without clear alignment to your organization’s priorities; these choices often lead to selection of the best sales demo vs. the right industry-specific solution and partner for your company and markets. Customer engagement success requires expertise within your specific industries and vertical markets. This is not a place to trust generalist software or consulting firms. Find partners with solid experience and industry-specific references and solutions.

Successful digital transformation requires a program of improvement that balances process, data, and technology solutions. Many failures have trusted a magic bullet software package without addressing these equally critical factors. That said, the industry leading platforms provide much of what is needed ‘out of the box’ and failure to leverage these native and pre-packaged capabilities leads to unnecessary customizations, throwaway costs, and solution gaps. Lastly, a successful past is one of the greatest obstacles to industry-leadership into the future. The new customer engagement models challenge established ways of thinking and doing things. Recreating legacy practices in new technologies doesn’t work. Bottom line: strategy first, technology second.

MBT: What characteristics will define the winners and losers in the age of the customer? 

Mike Shields: As with previous manufacturing industry transformations, LEAN for example, successful adaptation rewards organizations that master industry shifts as an opportunity to transform themselves and gain competitive advantage. Conversely, they punish those who wait too long to adapt and learn how to succeed in a radically changed business model. Looking ahead a few years, here’s an Age of the Customer scorecard for manufacturers. Losers will be product-driven, focused on targeting buyers and selling products and will commoditize choices. Winners on the other hand, will realize the need to drive their business based on their customers and market. Winners will build lifetime loyalty by engaging in customer communities, creating satisfying experiences and ultimately empowering their customers. Lastly, winners will enable differentiation with knowledge-based technologies to create competitive advantage, because they realize it is the most effective business model to dominate markets by meeting all demand with the best offering for that customer need. 

Mike Shields is the CEO of eLogic