Understanding the digital consumer: 6 key insights by Gerrie Smits

The way in which consumers interact with businesses continues to evolve at lightning speed. In today’s digital era, keynote speaker Gerrie Smits believes businesses should focus on understanding their customer - above all else.

Customer focus, customer is king… The importance of customer centricity is not new, but the ‘digital revolution’ is changing the way consumers interact with businesses.

“Customer service shouldn’t just be a department. It should be the entire company.”
Tony Hsieh, CEO Zappos

We talked to keynote speaker and digital strategist Gerrie Smits, who has over 20 years of experience in industries disrupted by the internet, making him a hands-on expert in dealing with the impact of technology on all sorts of businesses, products and most importantly: people.

#1: Every business should embrace customer centricity.

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According to Smits, any business that fails to embrace customer-centricity today will fail altogether. “Lots of companies still start from the ‘what’ - their product. If you can get them to think about the ‘why’, and really understand what their product or service means to consumers, you get vastly different strategies, with vastly different results. Start from your customers’ needs, and go from there.”

“A good quote in that respect: Every team needs to have a customer. If you don’t have a customer in mind, you can’t know what you’re working for. A customer could be multiple people - even within your organisation - but it’s such a simple, fundamental insight. If you, your team and other departments don’t know what you’re working for, why bother?”

As a framework, many of Smits’ customers have started to embrace ‘Design Thinking’, which helps to understand and pursue innovation - in ways that contribute to organic growth, and add real value to your customers. “It’s not the end-all-and-be-all, but the fact that it’s on the radar of many major corporates clearly means a shift is taking place.”

#2: The number one skill for current-day professionals? Empathy.

As Smits puts it, “today’s shift towards digital business also affects other aspects of your business. Take HR strategy, for instance. In an increasingly digital world, SMEs need to understand what their customers desire. And to help your team figure out what that is, you’ll also need new hiring criteria.”

Research shows that professionals who master listening and responding with empathy will perform better in coaching, engaging others, planning and organising, and decision-making. Yet empathy is on the decline for most businesses: with advancing technology, it has become standard practice to send automated emails or texts instead.

“But what is the number one skill people absolutely need to be successful? Empathy. It allows us to experience and understand what customers want, the struggles they deal with and the added value they are looking for.” By placing the customer at the heart of what we do - e.g. by creating Buyer Personas, adding customer touch points - we are better positioned to respond to their needs, including those that are unknown or unarticulated.

#3: Digitisation affects the customer experience in more ways than you could imagine.

“What matters is that businesses understand where things are going. What is happening today, and how will this affect my customers? If it turns out that at a certain point, your customer expects things to be automated and machine learning is the best technology for them - how will you react as an SME?”

“Businesses should catch the COD: the Characteristic of Digital.”

Businesses should be aware of trends, “but as I like to call it, ‘catch the COD(Characteristic of Digital). You need to understand why things are becoming more important, the underlying motive of customers. Take chatbots - they’re efficient, and help people who don’t like making phone calls. They allow customers to contact you through different channels. Again: businesses, however small or large, will need to understand which technology will be fit for whom, and which need it will solve. That will be the clue to success.”

#4: Build and maintain customer loyalty by combining digital with human.

If you look at the underlying motives of customers today, one thing stands out: People want a relevant, personal experience. “That’s also the reason face-to-face still works like a charm - because of the personal approach it offers. But spending 30 minutes talking to each customer also has a downside: scalability.”

“Digital solutions nowadays can mimic a personal approach in a scalable way.”
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But the digital and the personal approach are not polar opposites. Data can be used to segment your customer base, personalise the customer experience... e.g. by digitally identifying your loyal customers, and then sending them a personal thank-you card. “Digital solutions nowadays can mimic the same personal approach, while being scalable all the same.”

“Sometimes you’ll only need an automated flow (e.g. drip email campaigns) to convince your customer of your story. Sometimes you’ll need to talk to him personally for 30 minutes. I believe businesses who are able to combine those two seamlessly - the digital and human aspect - will have more chances of success.”

#5: Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo.

Businesses should dare to question themselves. “Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. What works today, might not work tomorrow. How will you - and your business - adapt to this ever-changing reality?” Social media presence is one of those things. The way businesses use social media today might drastically change over the years to come. And what works for the majority, might simply not work for you - or vice versa.

“You need to figure out where you’re going, but dare to be agile.”

That’s the mindset any type of SME should have today. Don’t think you’re right, by default. “You need to figure out where you’re going of course, and you need to stick to the plan, but dare to be agile. Know who your customer is, and don’t be afraid to follow a trend or evolution as you go along.”

The biggest challenge for SMEs in understanding digital consumers: “Don’t think technology will be the answer to everything without any effort from your side. Why worry about your social presence if you don’t understand why people are on social media in the first place? Who are your customers, why are they buying my product, and how is that process changing? What impact will technology have on my relationship with existing customers? Or new customers in the next 3 to 5 years?”

#6: “Product first, everything else comes later” is not a valid approach.

“It has never been easier to launch a new product or business, and with the fierce competition in every industry, you’ll instantly lose an edge if you don’t put your customer first. In the age of digital consumers, competitors that do not necessarily offer a superior product, but that do focus on customer centricity, will quickly take your place.”

“If you don’t start from customer data or market research, your offer might be a prototype instead of something marketable.”

“If your product or service is completely aligned with the market requirements, great. But SMEs and start-ups: if you don’t start from customer data or market research, chances are your offer will be more of a prototype instead of something marketable.”

    • 14/08/2017
    • Last modified on 27/10/2023

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