Tag Archives: business strategy

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Disruption and Innovation, Part I

Over the years, as an analyst, advisor and even as an entrepreneur, I’ve heard the phrase “Our strategy is to disrupt ” far too often. It’s a bit disheartening at times, because what I really want to hear is how your strategy is going to “innovate” rather than disrupt.

Why? I’ve always believed that the fastest way to success is to avoid trying to knock somebody off the ladder and, instead, build your own ladder. You control your future. You shape the market. You let the people on the other ladder pursue their evolutionary strategies while you quietly create a revolutionary strategy.

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN DISRUPTION AND INNOVATION

To be clear, there is a definite relationship between “disruption” and “innovation” not to be confused with Clay Christensen’s “Disruptive Innovation”. Often, they feed off of each other – one leading to the other (or at least providing an opportunity for the other to take hold).

Innovations within a market can ultimately lead to the disruption (or devastation) of an existing or adjacent (but different) market (example: iPhone’s App store devastating video games, wrist watches, cameras). Note that true innovations don’t just offer better versions of existing products, but offer better alternatives to existing products – they ultimately replace them.

Similarly, disruptions within a market (or a vendor if they dominate that market) can often provide an enhanced opportunity for new and innovative vendors and products. The more disruptive a market has become, the greater the opportunity for innovation to create a new, better alternative market. But there are differences.

And far from being singular events, disruptions and innovations can often be associated with long-term evolutionary trends, rather than singular events (Pervasive Communications is a great example of two trends (technology and human behavior) leading to a disruption of both social structures, technologies and global markets (check out Alan Berkson’s framing of Pervasive Communications and a video chat with Brian Reich on the global implications of Pervasive Communications).

DISRUPTION

Disruption, like the stuff that hits the fans, often just happens. It can be caused by any number of different conditions. Disruptions to supply chains. Technological advances. Corporate mismanagement. Natural disasters. All can result in a market (and its vendors) being disrupted. In the extreme, the disruption devolves into a state of chaos – and chaos (while it may offer opportunity for those able to restore order) is usually not a characteristic of a market you want to enter.

To this last point, the notion of “disrupting” a market of a vendor to gain a competitive advantage is more often than not simply the wrong approach (a great example being the often asked question in the analytical/advisory space: “Why hasn’t anybody been able to disrupt Gartner’s business model”). To disrupt an entrenched vendor’s business model means to disrupt their market, which may be extremely difficult/impossible to achieve without disrupting your own chances of stepping in to take advantage of the opportunity (an issue we’ll discuss in Part II).

INNOVATION

Innovation, on the other hand, is more often the result of a “spark” or idea that transcends the products, services and strategies of an existing vendor or market. It creates something new: its own ladder. Rather than competing head to head against an existing market or vendor, it offers an alternative that, if done correctly, is often unnoticed by other vendors. It doesn’t (initially) compete for the same budget, nor does it require a “magic quadrant” or an “us vs them” comparison.

A true innovation stands alone – it is its own product and market replacing the need for existing products and markets. It obsoletes prior structures (an issue we’ll discuss in Part III) and represents – in both the short- and long-term – a new market opportunity.

While a new innovation may ultimately compete for overall corporate/consumer dollars, it is often differentiated enough that it can initially sit along-side existing products and simply blend into the landscape. In fact, the best innovations are the ones that existing market players don’t deem as viable – very different from a product evolution that may be considered cannibalistic if they were to implement it themselves.

Taking it deeper, a true innovation will ultimately replace the need for existing products, vendors and even markets. All though not common, the “existing products” *may* not actually exist (although the need for them may – the case of the impractical market), or if they do exist, they *may* under-perform or not currently meet market demand (something that may not be obvious or intuitive to either consumers or vendors).

Take, for example, the iPhone (introduced only five years ago in 2007). In and of itself, it wasn’t a true innovative product, but rather an evolutionary extension of existing multi-media phones (like the Blackberry). But the Apple App Store – when combined with the iPhone (in 2008) – was a true innovation. It created a new market, obsoleted others and forever changed the way that hundreds of different products (as applications) were brought to market.

MOVING FORWARD

In the next few posts we’ll discuss the different types of disruptions and innovations that commonly occur, and the risks and rewards that accompany each (here’s a thought to ponder: most disruptions – especially man-made – offer more risk than reward, while most innovations offer tremendous reward with very little risk).

Have a different perspective? Toss it out. There are plenty of opinions on this subject and I’m looking forward to the debate.

“Oops!” Broken Lightbulb photo courtesy of Kyle May licensed under Creative Commons

Note: Post updated to highlight and clarify distinction between “disruption and innovation” and “Disruptive Innovation”

5 Properties of Influence You Need to Understand

There has been a great deal of discussion of late regarding influence, most of it centered around who has it, how to measure it and how to leverage it. So when I sat down with my good friend and colleague Alan Berkson (@berkson0) of the Intelligist Group to discuss influence, we decided to push each other in a slightly different direction.

Rather that focus on how influence is quantified, we decided to take a look at what defines influence, and in particular, what are some of the universal characteristics of influence – not just in social media, but in the real world, across any/all markets and not limited to any specific time period.

At the end of our talk, several hours later, we had identified a number of unique characteristics of influence that were not limited to individuals, but also applied to events and trends. Here are five that we found particularly noteworthy – feel free to add your own to our list

1)    Influence can have a transitive reach across multiple industries or market sectors

Being influential in one market can often lead to being influential in another. In fact, the more influential a person or event is in a particular market can often be a good indicator of how far that influence can be extended, but there are limits.

Take for example, Bono, of U2. He has leveraged his influence in the music industry into the realm of humanitarian causes with great success, but I probably wouldn’t be swayed at all if he tried to sell me a Fiat. On the other hand, Lou Gerstner (who turned around IBM despite a non-tech background with RJR Nabisco and American Express) and Jack Welch (who drove General Electric to a dominant position during his tenure from 1981 – 2001) have enough influence, clout and experience to dominate just about any industry they touched (their influence in this case was both within their industry and within their companies, as motivators). But again, while I might be influenced by their actions in other unrelated business sectors, I probably wouldn’t be swayed by their attempt to sell men’s fragrances.

2)    Influence can have variable fade curves by time

Influence is not a steady thing, it ebbs and flows like the tide, but ultimately tends to fade over time. In some cases, the influence of a person is felt both in their present (look at how Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized the printing process in his own time) and the long term future (without Gutenberg’s invention, the age of knowledge would never have occurred).

For some, the curve is very steep and fades with extreme prejudice (ala 15 minutes, or even seconds, of fame – the same can be said, by the way, for trends or “fads”), while for others their personal and global influence continues to grow to span their entire life. For example, look at how the influence of Stephen Hawking continues to grow and drive advances in the world of physics (his curve continues to rise and will have a very slow fade, similar to Albert Einstein).

3)    Influence can be cyclic and/or recurring

Influence, of both trends and people, can be recurring. Steve Jobs is a great example here. While he was at Apple (the first time), his influence rocketed upward. But when he left, his influence (over both the company and the market) dropped to almost nothing. Interestingly, when he returned to Apple, his influential status picked back up exactly at the place where he left it, and it hasn’t stopped growing since.

In a different way, past figures can see a resurgence of their influence, often in unintended ways. Here are two really interesting examples:

  • Yul Brynner, the famous actor who passed in 1985, saw a resurgence in his influence through a series of anti-smoking commercials he recorded prior to his death to be released years after his death. Here, his influence not only was recurring, but transcended the industry in which he was known.
  • Charlton Heston, the great actor and long-time champion against gun control laws, while known for his acting is best remembered for his line “from my cold, dead hands” – a phrase uttered well after his fame as an actor had faded that has now, even today, remained a rallying cry for those who believe the 2nd Amendment guarantees their right to bear arms.

The list goes on. Look at how RunDMC jump-started Aerosmith’s fading career with their cover of “Walk This Way”, or how Tony Bennett, the singer famous in the mid-1900’s was able to stage a remarkable comeback with a younger generation, appearing along-side the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Flavor Flav, or Roy Orbison, whose career was revitalized through the collaborative efforts of people like Tom Petty and Elvis Costello, bring his then “old” music to a new generation of younger fans.

4)    Influence transcends positive & negative

The saying there is no such thing as bad press is as true as ever. Influence doesn’t respect the boundaries of good or bad, it simply is, and can often work in ways that would seem to be at odds with common sense. Need a good example? Take a look at Rupert Murdoch. Throughout his career, he has had his share of tremendous successes and dreadful controversies. Neither of these has, in the past, diminished or limited his ability to wield tremendous influence through his media empire. Even with his current scandal, involving the News of the World newspaper (and also the name of one of my favorite Queen albums), it is extremely uncertain what the long-term impact will be on his influence or his legacy.

5)    Influence transcends medium

Influence often works in subtle ways. For example, trusted and famous actors often lend their voice, not their image, to commercials across various industries. Most people don’t recognize the voice at first (if at all), but they do subconsciously associate the comfort they feel with that “voice” despite the fact that the medium doesn’t show the face of the actor or even mention the actor’s name. Great examples include the actor Sam Elliot, who despite a brilliant screen career, has probably had more true influence through his voice-over line “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner” than he has had in his acting career. Interesting, isn’t it.

Like I said above, these are just five examples that we thought noteworthy. There are many more, and I think the real value of this list is how we leverage these characteristics in our daily personal and business lives feel free to add your own to our list

5 Trends Influencing Business Today

The world is presently in the midst of a wave of revolutions, spanning from massive changes in global politics to the ever-exploding presence of social media and online technology into our everyday lives. Through all of this, however, business must go on, but it isn’t business as usual. I recently wrote a short post on who might be influencing your next business deal.

After delving a bit deeper, and surviving some great brainstorm sessions (if you don’t have a group of trusted advisors, get one), I started to take a look at the bigger picture – not just “who” might be influencing business deals, but what are some of the major trends that are helping to redefine how we do business while the world around us transitions from the past of the 20th century to the new realities of the 21st.

Here are 5 trends that I think are worth watching:

1) The Importance of the Customer

The phrase “customer-centric” has never been more important than it is today. With the arrival of the “information age”, consumers world-wide know what is available, what everyone else is buying and how to find it online at the lowest cost. With this power has come the ability to shape markets, and define the products that they want. Manufacturers no longer have the power to define a market in their own closed space. The phrase “build it and they will come” no longer applies – you must know what the customer wants in advance if you want any chance of survival. And once you have delivered what the customer wants, your product and your customer support must both be perfect, because in this age, word-of-mouth doesn’t just reach family and friends, it reaches the world.

Place the customer first. Listen to them before you build your product and they’ll tell you what to make. Listen to them after they buy your product and they’ll tell you how to keep them as repeat customers (and brand advocates).

2) The Rise of Search

Search has changed everything. Anybody with a laptop, tablet or even a phone can find any piece of information they need. They can find just about everything regarding both a product and the company that makes it, including the opinions of others. But more importantly, search is becoming personal, and that is having a dramatic impact on both the consumption of information and the consumption of product and services. Search is no  longer “your father’s SEO”.

To drive revenue & growth, Google, Bing/Yahoo, etc. have always tried to present the most “relevant” search results (and advertisements) on your search page. Relevancy = dollars. But we’ve moved into a stage of technology, and “business to business” information sharing, where this refinement has evolved to where not just ads but content (search results) are now unique to individuals, based on their past search history, sites they frequent, their geographic regions, social/economic groups, etc. For example, Google uses 57 different “signals” to track who you are and what content is most appropriate specifically for you. Couple those 57 signals with information that they can obtain about you (either directly or through other “information partners”) and you have a powerful tool.

Businesses need to recognize the importance of personalized search, how it impacts their own online strategy and figure out the best way to leverage it to their advantage.

3) The Globalization of “Message”

There was a time when a brand’s “message” was local. Even corporations that had a global footprint (General Motors, SONY, Coke/Pepsi, etc.) still had customized messages that were appropriate (and targeted) at the local, or at least regional, level. And they stayed there.

Today, that world is gone. With the rise of the Internet and a population that increasingly views world travel as just another part of life, messages and brand images no longer stay where you put them. Instead, they go viral. They get picked up on YouTube. They’re seen by travelers. They’re found on the Internet (occasionally in a blog with a title like “the 10 worst marketing translations”). They are everywhere. Moving forward, the “message” that a corporation presents must be global in nature, or at the least, local and regional messages must be cultivated in such a way as to work on a global scale. From a business perspective, this isn’t a bad thing at all. In fact, get creative with your international message and perhaps you’ll get lucky and it will go viral.

4) The Power of “Same”

Not only can you buy the same thing anywhere, people have grown to expect the same thing everywhere! While we still pride ourselves in finding that unique place or product, the reality is that the world is becoming one giant franchise. The “bland effect” (the ability to eat at a McDonald’s or Burger King in just about every country in the world) has moved into most major industries, from automotive to online, and shows no signs of slowing.

Perhaps the greatest example is the global domination of major online firms (Google, Facebook, Amazon, eBay, etc.) who have created wildly successful brands that require little or no customization to reach into any country. And if a business can’t get there themselves, the clones will. Here’s a great column from Shane Farley at Business Insider on how Sina Weibo (a Chinese version of Twitter) is outpacing Twitter’s own growth curve. If you are bringing a major product or brand to market, you must expect and drive global demand.

5) The Fall of Nations

What is more important in the world today: nations or businesses? I’d argue businesses. Who has more influence today: nations or businesses? Again, I’d argue for businesses. The globalization of brands, and the ability of consumer demand to occur on a world-wide scale, are tipping the balance of power. Commerce and trade, and consumer demand, doesn’t respect political borders. In fact, it makes them less relevant as, in this information age, we become a globe of increasingly “similar” consumers. Nations, of course, will push back and continue to try to regulate international commerce and trade. But in the long run, power is increasingly in the hands of the consumer, and the businesses that meet their needs.

What are the trends that YOU are seeing?

These 5 trends are a few of the trends that I see shaping and influencing the world of business today. What trends are shaping your business, and how are you adapting?

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Influence and the Value of the Introduction

INFLUENCE. Sometimes a simple introduction and handshake is all you need.

Influence is all around us, present in almost every aspect of our lives. We live through it in school, through our teachers, mentors and friends. We see it in our family lives, as our children are influenced by our own behavior and morals. We especially see it in the broader society where people are often influenced by their favorite stars, idols or athletes – perhaps even going so far as to emulate their behavior in the misguided belief that if their idols are cool and liked, they can be cool and liked if they adopt the same behaviors or lifestyles (and no, it doesn’t work that way in real life).

INFLUENCE AS WE TYPICALLY SEE IT

In all of the situations mentioned above, we are dealing with influence from the perspective of a direct cause-effect relationship that involves an influencer and an influencee. Most commonly, we see personal influence where a person, or group of people, has direct influence over another person, or group of people (classic examples involve politics and peer-pressure).

We also often see influence in business and marketing, with companies striving to sway entire markets to purchase their products, often through educational campaigns (providing the consumer with the advantages of their product, its features and why it is a better option than rival products). In other cases, they may lean towards more subtle neuromarketing strategies, while others simply resort to blatant “value by association” techniques (if my favorite movie star uses that product, it’s probably a good product…).

We can even take a more observational view with regard to events and actions, tracking the influence that a particular event (or group of events) today, or in the past, may have on future events (witness the history of political upheaval in one nation helping to influence, or even drive, similar upheavals in other nations suffering from similar internal or regional issues).

“Influence is much more than just changing or causing a behavior”

But there is another type of influence that is more subtle, less direct, yet often more effective at achieving a long lasting impact – and all it takes is an introduction.

THE VALUE OF INFLUENCE BY INTRODUCTION

When we talk about introduction-based influence, we are referring to the bringing together of two or more people (or groups) that have the ability to complement each other for mutual benefit. In this case, there is no typical influencer – influencee relationship. Rather, the influencer is acting as more of a facilitator – an enabler of sorts – using the introduction as a way of creating an environment where ideas and collaboration can be fostered between the groups being introduced.

“Influence by introduction can produce some great, and unexpected, results”

Influence by introduction does not work well when there is a fixed outcome that the influencer is hoping to achieve (i.e., a specific course of action). Where it does work, however, is where the outcome that the influencer is hoping to achieve is less for their benefit and more for the benefit of the parties being introduced, or in situations where the desired outcome isn’t a particular action but rather a type, or level, of action.

Perhaps the parties being introduced are an analyst and a vendor – each looking for information and insight from the other. Or perhaps the parties being introduced each bring a particular strength or talent that, when combined, can create a powerful, collaborative working group,  perhaps even identifying and developing solutions to problems that none of us, myself included, may have thought about on our own. It’s all about opening up new opportunities.

“Any business can benefit from influencial introductions”

From my perspective, successful introductions are definitely a form of influence. Positive influence, like leadership, is based on trust, and introductions only work well if all parties trust, and respect, the person making the introduction. Who doesn’t like to hear from a friend or advisor: “I think you two both have some great ideas and skills – you should definitely get to know each other“?

It’s more than just a pat on the back, it conveys a sense of value, potential and belonging to the people being introduced. They may not even recognize that there is a subtle form of influence at play.

So how do you or your company view influence? Most view influence as a means to drive an outcome with a specific goal in mind, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But have you taken the next step?

Are you willing to use your influence, with your name on the line, to make that introduction, acting as the catalyst to allow others to create value on their own, where the outcome is far less certain, but perhaps with the potential to benefit us all?

I value your opinion, and all comments are greatly appreciated. You can also subscribe to my posts via Email or RSS.  Thanks for being part of the discussion – Fred.


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Gamification and the Gaming of Foursquare

GAMIFICATION. I just love that word. Maybe it’s the similarity to the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s song “Californication”. Or maybe it’s the fact that while it isn’t one of the Seven Deadly Sins, it sure sounds like it belongs – especially the way it has become such a part of mainstream business culture today.

Unfortunately, as more and more businesses rely upon gaming models to drive up their user base and increase their revenue potential (leveraging social media, increased social collaboration and the proliferation of mobile devices), there is also a growing risk of these game-based business models being gamed themselves.

Let’s take a look at Foursquare as an example – how does somebody “game” a business model that is essentially built as a game? This question touches on two critical, yet very different, aspects of business gaming: gamification (the creation of a game) to drive business, and the devising of a way to “game” (or cheat) the game. And when I say cheat, we’re talking more than just counting cards in blackjack, a favorite game of mine, we’re talking aces up the sleeve at the poker table.

GAME-BASED BUSINESS STRATEGIES

Foursquare is a social media company designed to help drive consumers (Foursquare users) to merchants (Foursquare business partners). In this way, Foursquare can be considered a social media alternative to mainstream advertising.

To encourage people to use Foursquare (and thus achieve the consumer-merchant connection), the company uses a process called gamification. Gamification is the application of a competitive game-like environment to a non-game business model that is competitive and offers rewards for those who play the game regularly.

“Gamification is a means to an end for a business, but often just a game for its users”

In this case, the Foursquare game is played by users, via a cell phone application, who “check in” to various merchants that they frequent, with the hopes of gaining discounts and special deals from the merchants. To make the game interesting and competitive, Foursquare allows game players to earn badges and points for frequenting both new and previously visited merchants, locate/follow friends, broadcast their own check in locations and boast of achievements to their friends via social media (“I am the Mayor of Starbucks!”).

That is the gamification of Foursquare – leveraging a game-like system as a way for Foursquare, and their merchant partners, to drive business in a “fun” way.

“GAMING” THE GAME

Now to the issue of “gaming” Foursquare. When we talk of “gaming” a game (like Foursquare), we are essentially talking of a way to beat (or cheat) the system. People who “game” Foursquare are looking for ways to “win” without having to actually play the game on a competitive level with other players. The easiest way to do this is through checking in to merchant locations without actually physically being at the merchant location (they currently restrict check-ins to one per day per location, so sitting in a coffee shop and checking in every 5 minutes won’t get you any Foursquare points).

“Gaming the game is nothing more than cheating.”

Checking in to a remote location is fairly easy, especially if the user is using a cell phone with limited geo-location awareness – a critical point since Foursquare uses your cell phone’s “reported” location (a Location Based Service feature), via either GPS or cell-tower triangulation depending upon the phone, to find you and suggest nearby merchants. I stress the word reported since the accuracy of geo-location depends highly on both the cell phone manufacturer (who may restrict GPS usage to save battery life) or the service provider (who may not be able to accurately pinpoint a phone’s exact location due to cell tower locations).

Note: For an interesting take on Location Based Services, check out my friend Ray Wang’s excellent post on why he is checking out of location-based-services based on some serious privacy concerns. You can also check out some amazing statistics that Foursquare has gathered on its user base.

In the early days of Foursquare (yes, 2009 counts as the “early” days when they only had coverage in about a hundred cities), many cell phones had limited or no accurate geo-location system, making gaming the system much easier, since it was more difficult for Foursquare to accurately pinpoint your exact location.

NOTE: On a purely anecdotal note, I have a friend who pointed out that at one point during 2010, the “Mayorship” of their local coffee shop was suddenly dominated by a group of individuals that not only didn’t appear to be frequenting the shop, but based on their profiles appeared to be living in a different country at the time.

It wasn’t until the beginning of 2010 that Foursquare opened up the ability to check in anywhere on the globe and began to actively sign on big-name “partner” merchants (you can even create your own locations if they aren’t already mapped, with certain Foursquare “super users” having the ability to edit locations and self-correct/moderate the system).

“Want to check into a flight? Try Foursquare…”

But back to the “gaming issue: From my own personal experience, Foursquare (through my iPhone app) routinely offers up check in locations from over 20,000 meters away (~12.5 miles), including, interestingly, airline flights (with point credit!) both inside and outside the range of my local airport (I’m thinking “vertical” here?). With a 12.5 mile radius, I can check into almost anywhere in northern Virginia without getting up from my desk, and that is exactly what some people do.

So if you want to get kicked out of Foursquare (and be the Mayor of Nowhere), that is how you “game” the game of Foursquare.

FOURSQUARE ISN’T ALONE

Unfortunately, Foursquare isn’t alone in this situation. As I’ve delved deeper into gamification strategies and ways to leverage gaming to improve business models, I’ve come across some other potential cases of abuse. In one situation, I found what appeared to be a group of individuals collectively “upping their ranking” on a popular “Question & Answer” site – they (as a collective group) seemed to be voting up/down particular users or answers to questions – their own particular way of attempting to ensure that certain individuals “rise to the top” in terms of points, expertise, influence, clout, etc.

In theory, a group of people could create a multitude of alias accounts and very quickly game themselves to the elite list of community members. This would not be that difficult in an open social network where anybody can join and the business model requires that the number of users continues to rise to remain viable or profitable (perhaps an interesting comment on the value of focused or selected user groups?).

Interestingly, I’ve run into more than a few people (especially in the case of Foursquare) who say they aren’t “gaming” the system, they are just pushing the boundaries of the rules (or technical limitations) put in place by Foursquare. Their opinion is that if Foursquare wants to stop this type of abuse, change the system to actually require a person to physically check in (perhaps via Bluetooth?) to a device at the merchant location (while possible, this would be a financial disaster for Foursquare).

“For me, gaming the game to fix it is more fun than the game itself.”

None of this is to say that the use of gaming in business strategies is bad, or that there isn’t phenomenal value to adding a gaming component to areas such as marketing, consumer retention, or even collaborative problem solving (an area of personal interest). But what I do believe is that as we move into this area – fueled by the incredible development of technology and the willingness of consumers/users to participate in social games, we need to be diligent in making sure that the very gamification systems that we deploy aren’t being gamed themselves. That means devising gamification systems in such a way as to anticipate, and preclude (as much as possible), abuse of the system.

If you’ve seen this in your own experience, or have a thought on how to help improve the application of gaming into business models, drop a comment below and share it. Gamification has been around for years (just like the McDonald’s Monopoly Game), and isn’t likely to ever go away. The more we discuss this topic, the better prepared we will all be to leverage it for success.


To keep up with all my posts, you can subscribe to my Email feed or RSS feed.  If you found some value here, or have an opinion, leave me a comment or share this post with your friends and colleagues.

I appreciate your feedback, and thanks for reading – Fred.

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Customer Service Leadership? Press 1 for Yes…

It started with a single, simple, question put to me by a good friend:  “What are the key qualities needed to be a leader in customer service?”  There are, of course, a great number of existing text books, essays, blogs, etc. that address  “best practices” in customer service, so answering the question with an easy answer was, well, easy. Too easy.  So, as I often do, I stepped back and took a look at the question in its true context.

The question was an outgrowth of the merging of a continuing series of conversations that I’ve been involved in regarding both business leadership and customer service. As I began considering the question in the context of these two somewhat independent discussions, a single point began to crystalize in my mind:  Good customer service – industry leading customer service – involves all aspects of a company. It’s not just a customer service issue by itself, it’s a mindset or business ideal that is shared by all aspects of a company.

“Great Customer Service is a corporate mindset, not a job description”

Looking at it from a different perspective, leadership in customer service can be thought of as a trait of companies that have strong corporate leadership – leadership that values a high level of customer-centric focus, strong business ethics, team empowerment and corporate-wide cooperation.  I’ll emphasis the last point in particular, because customer service is but one single piece in what I’ll call the customer cycle – the series of events and processes that exist in most successful companies.

With this in mind, I’ve compiled a list of traits of companies that I consider to have outstanding customer service – those companies that are not only leaders in customer service, but influence the business and customer service models of their competitors and the industry.

PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT: Leaders in customer service include their prospective customers in the development process, helping to refine both product features and availability/pricing.

A great product idea is only a winner if it is high quality, addresses a customer need at the right time, in the right place and at the right price point (think of how many products failed because they were either ahead of their time or late to market – ditto products that didn’t fit the value/dollar realities of the market at that particular time).

CUSTOMER ACQUISITION: Leaders in customer service don’t just sell a product, they sell the value of the entire company, including customer service.

Contrast two competing vendors with exactly the same product at the same price and the same quality. The vendor that introduces the prospective customer to their client service organization – or their specific customer service representative – will win the business every time.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: Leaders in customer service place value in, and empower, their customer service representatives.

Employees in the customer service organization are representatives of the firm, not “agents” as they are often tagged. As such, they represent the company and are often the most important (and in many cases the only) person that an actual end user will interact with. Representatives who are empowered have the ability to follow guidelines, not scripts. They can escalate when they feel necessary. They listen to what the customer has to say and in turn, they are listened to by their corporate management, and the knowledge they gain from their customer interactions aren’t just mined, they are sought out and encouraged on a personal level (and then fed back to product development, marketing and sales teams).

Leaders in customer service also recognize that each customer is different, and their needs are different. In turn, they offer a variety of means for a customer to receive support and assistance, including every social media venue where their customers are active (both listening and in two-way communications). They also provide different levels of support, allowing a customer to choose as little or as much personal contact as they require.

CUSTOMER RETENTION: Leaders in customer service recognize that great customer service leads to great customer retention, and great customer retention leads to great customer advocacy.

The value of retaining a customer can never be underestimated – especially if you listen to them, learn from them and adapt your products to their changing needs. I remember the days when we would set up “VIP” user groups, get everybody together once a year at a major conference and tell them how much we appreciated them.

“Customers who are partners are also part of your sales team”

With social media, leading companies are encouraging the creation of online user communities that are open to all and discussion, praise and dissent are encouraged and shared. Customers that feel you are a partner are much more likely to offer advice and suggestions to products, rather than look for alternatives. In turn, they become your best customer advocates, influencing others to consider your product through their own product loyalty and satisfaction shared in these open (not just for customer) forums.

MY THOUGHTS. YOURS?

These are just some of my thoughts on the characteristics of companies that are leaders in customer service. I believe that if they have these characteristics, while they may not be the largest vendor in their market, they are most likely the most influencial and will ultimately rise through the market-share ranks.

Are there other characteristics or “must have” items for a top-notch customer service organization? Absolutely. Let me know what you think some of those are – I’d love to hear your opinion on what qualities are needed to be a leader in customer service.