Sunday, November 26, 2023

What Happened to the Age of the Customer?

Back in 2013, Forrester Research declared a new business era that they called the Age of the Customer. In this new era, empowered customers demand a new level of customer service that provides a source of dominance to companies delivering that kind of service. Realizing that, terms like customer success, customer journey, and customer obsession started to emerge. We even coined new metrics such as CSAT score and NPS. 

What was behind this customer obsession was the fear that customers, armed with their Twitter and Facebook accounts, have gained an unprecedented amount of power. This power was ready to be unleashed against companies that disappointed their expectations. The Twitter mobs were feared, and there were plenty of examples of this happening. Perhaps you remember the once-famous United Breaks Guitars song? So, let’s fast forward ten years and examine how things panned out. 

Well, not at all how Forrester predicted it. 

Sure, there are a few examples of companies that truly demonstrate customer obsession by placing customers over short-term profits. Frequently named examples include Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom, and Amazon. But those companies had figured out the customer obsession game long before the threat of Twitter mobs. In truth, most companies have gone backward on their customer-centricity.

For example, retail companies have installed self-checkout kiosks to reduce labor costs, and the remaining staff are responsible for restocking shelves rather than talking to customers. Restaurants are paying more attention to their online orders than to the customers sitting at a table. And airlines... does anyone believe that airlines care about their customers? Their greatest innovation in the last 10 years was Basic Economy with poorer customer service than the Standard Economy.

In the online world, things are not any better. Most companies are doing what it takes to prevent customer contact. There is even a new term for not having to talk to customers: “call deflection.” In order to deflect those pesky customer requests, companies often no longer publish their phone number and force customers to help themselves. Self-service has become their mantra as they make the customer responsible for buying, deploying, and fixing the product on their own. Most importantly, companies are spending thousands of dollars on technology that is supposed to answer customers' questions. 

This technology comes typically in the form of software such as knowledge base and chatbots. The chatbots are particularly popular as they are usually good enough to answer some basic customer questions. The trouble is that most customers resort to contacting the company only when they are stuck with a not-so-basic problem. Too bad! If you are lucky, the chatbot eventually discloses the secret phone number to call a human. You then have to pass through the frustrating voice-based menu, spend 45 minutes on hold, only to eventually speak to someone offshore who is measured on how quickly they get rid of you. 

This trend impacts even generative AI, the technology that has been at the center of the latest hype in Silicon Valley and beyond. Today, the killer app for generative AI is customer service. That really means smarter chatbots that will enable companies to deflect even more customer calls. The end goal is the reduction of labor cost by not having any direct human contact with customers in the Service and Support departments.

As you can tell, I am not impressed by what has become of the Age of the Customer. What really happened is that social media has lost a lot of its power as the customer megaphone. Complaining about poor customer service today is seen as a rant with little or no impact on the company’s reputation. Seeing the feared weapon much weakened, companies reverted to good old greed.

In addition, many companies confuse understanding their customers with customer centricity. While delving into customer data and optimizing the business based on these insights is important, it usually results in a company-centric optimization rather than customer-centricity. True customer-centric behavior requires prioritizing customers above short-term profits, with the conviction that profits will eventually follow. However, this approach takes guts, perseverance, and a long-term horizon – qualities that very few managers are measured on. 

I still believe that taking good care of customers is one of the most powerful competitive differentiators any company can deploy. Zappos is a good example of that. By letting customers order and return merchandise as many times as they want, Zappos has clearly put its immediate profits second to the concern for customer satisfaction. It worked. But sadly, there are only a few examples of companies like that. 

Saturday, November 4, 2023

The Lost Art of Content Management

After leaving the ECM space a few years ago, I had the chance to see how companies, those that don't sell content management products, manage their content. What I discovered is a disturbing mess.

In most companies, content like documents, spreadsheets, images, and more is left unmanaged. Thanks to cloud-based office suites like Microsoft 365 and Google Workspace, sharing documents has become incredibly easy. You no longer need to send documents via email (which was a mess by itself), and you don't have to put documents in shared folders either. Nowadays, you can share documents right from where they were created. Unfortunately, most people's default sharing location is their personal folder. 

That's right, most knowledge workers share their documents directly from their personal folder - with some disastrous consequences. By not using a shared, well-organized repository for their documents, many issues arise. As each worker controls their own sharing permissions, they tend to be either overly restrictive or overly open. Sharing with everyone by default creates obvious security vulnerabilities. Sharing only with a specific list of individuals is more secure, but it prevents new colleagues from leveraging the content later.  

The concept of a central repository is quite simple. It is a structure of containers (folders) from which documents inherit their properties, including access permissions. When organized logically, it is easy to navigate. If, for example, you need to find all Engineering projects from Q2 2022, you'd navigate through the folders Engineering -> Projects -> 2022 -> Q2 to find them. Since you might not know the project names or topics, relying on search would be a poor option, not to mention dealing with those pesky access permissions (you can;t find what you can’t access). This is where the hierarchical structure shines. A decent content management system handles access permissions while helping employees navigate the structure and locate relevant content without the need to search. 

Another effective content management tool for organizing content is tagging or classification. It allows users to find content using filters as an alternative to hierarchical navigation and search. That is how good content libraries are organized. Unfortunately, few bother to tag content today. 

With no efficient way to find and organize documents, employees are left to manage links to documents on their own. I've seen some crazy approaches forced by necessity - extensive browser bookmark collections, documents full of links, and browsers with over 100 tabs open. The only alternative is search, assuming you know what you are searching for. Search will not tell you 'What else you should know when working on this project.

When an employee leaves, their documents are typically inherited by their supervisor. However, supervisors rarely have the time to review those documents, so they end up in a subfolder, never to be looked at again.

It's a nightmare. 

Of course, you can create a shared folder structure in Google or Microsoft; you can even use tags. In reality, though, few people do that because nobody told them to do so. The IT department doesn't pay any attention to this issue (although they should) because they are too busy supporting hundreds of cloud apps, from Anaplan to Zuora. 

Knowledge workers don't worry about content management because they don't know any better. They were promised consumerization, where using software at work should be as easy as using Facebook at home. Nobody thought they needed training. But it turns out, they do. Without proper training, you end up with a mess. 

This chaos has opened the door for a range of new companies. Project Management software like Asana or Wrike is essentially a bunch of shared folders with a dashboard on top. Brand Management software like Brandfolder and Bynder are just simple digital asset management systems in a shared container. Intralinks Deal Rooms are shared folders marketed to investment bankers. Seismic is just a shared folder with better tagging. All of these could be created in a regular content management system like Box. The reason these companies exist is NOT because Box is lacking some features. 

Box understands the concept of content management and has built a fantastic product. However, Box, along with other content management vendors (sorry, I use Box and so I like to pick on it), has failed to create a market. Yes, there are companies in regulated industries like Life Sciences and Financial Services that are so heavily regulated that they have no choice but to use a content management system. But most companies don't see the point. Instead of using Box, they end up purchasing Asana, Brandfolder, and Seismic and then wonder why they have high IT costs and low productivity.

That is the problem that Box should be solving. It should establish a market by educating companies and knowledge workers on the importance of managing information. It should stop chasing the latest trends like generative AI because those won't result in a single new customer. The key to creating a market is explaining to people why they need to care about managing content.

Because right now, nobody cares.