It’s never been simpler to communicate with customers, or to access affordable new digital tools that improve business efficiency and quality. It’s never been cheaper to set up in business, and operating costs have never been more flexible. The internet brings myriad benefits to industry today.
Yet life online also brings business challenges. The same low costs of setting up in business have irrevocably altered entire market segments, accelerating dynamic competition. Business owners are regularly reminded of the cautionary tales of the demise of Blockbuster and Kodak - a stark warning that emergent market disruptors are never far away.
Business journals today are full of articles about digital transformation, and how new technologies are already creating vast commercial efficiencies, while reducing long-term operating costs.
Running a business today is significantly different to anything we’ve known previously. The modern business owner faces a continuous assortment of options for how to increase revenue growth. These are so wide-ranging that often it seems easier to carry on ’business as usual’ and hope that trading conditions don’t get too tricky.
Yet this is dangerous. Most conventional business management thinking no longer works in 21stCentury markets. Designed for more static, pre-internet trading conditions, the aspirational states of organisational stability and efficiency no longer serve when faced with complex and volatile market forces.
At Working the Future we’d argue that for the next 10 years at least, there won’t be any ’right’ way run a business. From here on in, business will require continuous experimentation and innovation, with both new customer offerings and internal operating models, to best determine what works for each specific market scenario. We are in the twilight of ’business as usual’.
For ambitious business owners however, there are three key areas of focus that we believe are critical to surviving increasingly ambiguous markets.
1) Know your customer
In a stable market, it’s straightforward to identify your unique selling proposition and grow your customer base. When business is good, there’s little or no need to think about innovation or diversification -when the revenues are there, why change anything?
But we’re now in a commercial landscape like no other. Gartner Inc talks about a ’nexus of forces’-where the ’convergence and mutual reinforcement of social, mobility, cloud and information patterns’ continuously drive new business scenarios and opportunities.
These forces have created an abundance of competition in most industry sectors. This in turn has fundamentally altered consumer behaviour. Just as we all shop around now to get the best deal on our household utilities, commercial purchasing decisions are increasingly based on price.
Business owners can no longer assume their customers are loyal; if we’re not continuously engaging with them and working hard to retain their business, we can assume that a competitor will be working harder to lure them away.
Customer loyalty is only one piece of the puzzle however. In fast-paced, rapidly evolving commercial landscapes, continuous innovation is key for ongoing commercial relevance. The fastest way to successfully innovate is to identify your customers’emergent needs. Continuous feedback from customers on product or service innovation underpins commercial resilience. This is a core concept of the agile methodology -where customer feedback drives improvements.
There’s also a bonus. A primal human desire is to feel connected with others. Proactively engaging with customers automatically deepens their sense of connection, in turn strengthening brand loyalty. This approach has been successfully used by companies like DropBox and Evernote -enabling them to innovate in real-time, whilst gaining invaluable customer insights.
2) Embrace continuous learning
Business leaders’ attitudes towards workplace learning vary. Great leaders recognise that workplace learning and development are intrinsically linked to staff engagement, productivity, retention, and most significantly, business growth. Some leaders regrettably however still consider learning at work as little more than a perk.
Yet continuous learning is the bedfellow of innovation - indeed innovation is simply a rolling cycle of experimentation and learning.
21st Century organisational survival is contingent on adapting to continuously evolving markets and business models. We need only consider the recent demise of Thomas Cook and its failure to adapt to the new digital landscape, to appreciate the wide-reaching impact of organisational stagnation.
3) Keep things human
Technology has already transformed the way we work, creating myriad competitive advantages for those businesses embracing digital futures. But all-digital customer experience can leave some users cold.
An emergent key word for the digital era is ’customercentricity’. In modern online marketplaces, consumers seek both efficiency AND experience -they want a smooth transaction and to feel that they matter. As we mentioned already, a most primal human need is to feel a sense of belonging. While technology drives efficiency, we’d argue that human-to-human connectedness can only be created through human-to-human interaction. This creates a compelling business case for world-class human-centric customer service in the future of work. The businesses that successfully blend technological efficiency with meaningful human interaction will undoubtedly gain loyal followers.
We’re in an era of profound change. We face challenges AND opportunities like never before. Digital will remain a pervasive force in our lives, but our HUMAN connections will give us the leading edge commercially. And we mustn’t forget that.