The Age of the Customer and The Internet of Things

Edmund Tee
Edmund Tee
11 September 2014 Business Insights

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My favorite grocery store is Publix, one of the largest employee-owned chains in the US. During my five-month-long roadtrip from Seattle to Key West, Publix was our go-to place for warm food, quality groceries, and great service.

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My kids still hanker for the Deli’s fried chicken and pink lemonade!

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So it came as little surprise when the chain was singled out as a success story in The Age of the Customer: Prepare for the Moment of Relevance.

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Written by my friend Jim Blasingame, Age of the Customer captures in a compelling and conversational style how the relationship between buyer and seller has fundamentally changed due to pervasive and seamless connectivity, and the ease in which the customer can now share buying experiences.

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It is what happens when the Internet of Things fuses with that old adage: the customer is always right. Except this time, technology makes the saying true.

The customer is always right and the internet of things

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In Jim’s words: “As technology’s interface partner, humans are still pretty much the same as we were when our greatest levers were fire and the wheel. Consequently, we’ve had to learn how to not only benefit from technology, but to cope with how it has increased the velocity of change.”

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While the buying decision remains with the customer, and the products and services are still controlled by seller, what has changed drastically is the access to information, which has tipped the balance from the millennia-old age of the seller in favor of the age of the customer.

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So the ability to find, research, and buy an item can be done without a potential seller ever knowing about it, and user-generated content such as reviews or word-of-mouth on social platforms have a tremendous part to play.

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As described by Jim, in the age of the customer, providers of products and services need to be relevant to their customers, because whether a customer likes you or not, they can potentially tell millions of people. Not just in the present, but also years into the future as things have a knack of hanging around on the Internet.

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In the age of the customer, relevance trumps competitiveness, and Publix is a great example of an age-of-the-seller merchant that has made itself highly relevant to its customers.

Relevance and customer service are key in the age of the customer

In Jim’s book, Publix President Todd Jones explains that among the trifecta of service, quality, and price, success means being good at two, and best at one.

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By choosing to excel in customer service, Publix has shown that it gets the age of the customer, and has been rewarded by its loyal base with a five perecent net margin in an industry where most grocery chains are considered successful with just two percent.

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Some of the things that Publix has done to be relevant to its customers include:

  • Starting with great in-store customer service, such as training its associates to focus on serving customers well and using predictive staffing to keep checkout lines short and moving.
  • Giving customers the ability to plan their shopping trips to get the best deals.
  • Providing a mobile app to serve up current deals and coupons for a local Publix store.
  • Options to go paperless with emailed receipts, and many other market-leading ideas.

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While the Publix story made sense to me, another example of how IBM had re-invented itself and transitioned away from hardware to services made me go “hmm”.

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It is true that then-CEO Louis Gerstner was supremely successful at turning a floundering giant around, which in 1993 reported losses of $8 billion. The focus on services saved IBM, and now accounts for about 50% of revenue.

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But in the last 12 months, the prognosis for IBM has seemed less certain. Some think its loss of the CIA Cloud Computing business to Amazon is a nail in the coffin, others think it’s just a hiccup.

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It’s hard to know where things will turn out, but that’s one limitation of books — the printed ones, at least.

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Maybe the whole concept of a book is an age of the seller artifact that is currently making its own transition of relevance in the age of the customer.

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That said, this book is still going to take pride of place on my bookshelf because the concepts that Jim explores truly resonate with me. Perhaps none more so than the emphasis on appreciating customers and saying “thank you” sincerely.

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It’s not rocket science, but it’s never been more important.

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