In the IT industry, staying current is a basic requirement for survival, and being ahead of the curve is a basic requirement for success. But where software and hardware become more sophisticated, processes such as sales and customer service remain somewhat outdated – and companies that fail to adapt may suffer.
Too often, businesses focus their efforts on shifting units: they see a successful sale as the end goal, rather than the first milestone in an ongoing, hopefully long-term relationship. In their view, the chief obligation is to supply the product, and to fix any problems that arise during the warranty period. The problem is that the current generation of consumers hold a rather different view: they expect more from their suppliers than a simple, transactional business arrangement.
Service, as much as product, is integral to modern sales success. Where there is little difference in design or functionality, it can separate you from the competition and help improve customer loyalty. But adjusting your sales model to maximise service isn’t necessarily a simple task: to do so successfully requires a change of mindset, and a concentrated effort on multiple fronts.
Products and commodities
So, why have customer expectations shifted so dramatically – and what can be done about it? Essentially, it’s an inevitable process of commoditisation, where unique brands with distinct offerings find themselves competing with other companies which offer more or less the same thing – at least in the eyes of the consumer.
Where Schweppes once dominated the fizzy lemonade market, now only true brand loyalists care if they drink a Schweppes, Sprite, 7-Up, White’s, or even a store-brand beverage instead. Equally, only true diehards insist on only buying from Samsung, Panasonic, or LG: most people who are after a 40-inch LCD TV will settle for a 40-inch LCD TV, with price being a far more important differentiator than brand.
It’s a natural transition that affects every industry at different times. For IT, it’s been happening since the mid-90s, when HP, Dell, IBM, and others started competing for influence in the exploding PC market. Improvements to design, additional features, and functionality became part of a never-ending game of catch-up; consumers acted largely as disinterested spectators in a feature-race, with no loyalty to any particular ‘team’ and little requirement for the new bells and whistles.
The same has happened with software: if a company needs an enterprise resource planning tool, an email automation system, or business intelligence technology, it has plenty of options to choose from – and, on the surface, no real reason to privilege one over another.
Software and service
Indeed, differentiating your product in a crowded market is a supremely difficult task: even if you do have a truly game-changing offering, it will invariably be imitated and co-opted by competitors (who may even improve on it). What incentive do customers have to treat your software or hardware as more important than anyone else’s? There are no prizes for being first.
If these products alone cannot forge strong customer relationships, then it’s worth thinking about what can. According to Zendesk, over 40 per cent of customers switch to direct competitors because of a reputation for quality service – and 52 per cent make more purchases from a company after a good service experience.
For many IT companies, service is not always a huge consideration during the sales process. Business development and customer care are often separate functions, and the former will invariably focus on getting clients to sign on the dotted line – with little regard for what comes after. To remain competitive, it’s necessary to move away from this transactional model and towards ‘end-to-end’ service that focuses on the comprehensive experience. It’s always worth including setup and implementation: your customers can’t get the most out of your product unless it can be integrated with their existing systems.
It’s also worth including training and support: a customer who knows your product inside out will be disinclined to learn how to use a competitor’s, and if they know that any problems can be resolved with a quick phone call, they’re more likely to trust you. Also include lifecycle services to ensure that after the initial onboarding, the customer is always getting the most out of their investment. The aim of a sale should be adoption, and superior customer service eases this process. Any company that sells the experience (rather than leading with a product and only later talking about some optional services) is going to be very well placed.
This isn’t to dissuade you from designing interesting new products or iterating on existing ones. If your offering is intuitive and enjoyable to use, then it’s certainly a good starting point on the road to adoption. But it’s only a starting point. User experience is comprised of many different things and, in a crowded field, the architecture of your service is as important as the architecture of your software
In an age of technological commoditisation, customers want a more holistic, personalised approach: one where the line between product and service is blurred, and where outcomes are driven by this combination.
They may not know the difference between your product and a dozen others, but they’ll always know a company that blends great technology and smart people – and provides a truly outcome-based experience.
Nick Holloway, Vice President of Global Services, Bullhorn
Image source: Shutterstock/Jirsak