Your Business isn’t Yours Anymore; It Belongs to Your Customers
First in a series of articles about how digital technologies, like blogging and social media, are changing the landscape of business.
You might think that your business belongs to you and/or a group of shareholders. While you may own the legal rights to the physical means of production; the buildings, the equipment, or the intellectual property and brands, the reality is that slowly, certainly, you’re losing control.
Control, after all, is the important part of ownership. So, while you may think you control your business, the truth is that you don’t anymore. You may not have noticed it, but control is slipping through your fingers. Today, the reality is that it’s your customers who own (i.e. control) your business; lock, stock and barrel.
Certainly, on some level you know it’s your customers who ultimately pay your bills, keep food on your table and a roof over you head. But what could they possibly, actively control? With growing frequency, the reality is; just about everything.
The Changing Meaning of Ownership
Time was when you could buy a car in any color, as long as it was black. But this was during an age when resources were scarce and the means of products were tightly controlled. In a real sense, Company A decided what you wanted, how to manufacture it, how to sell it to you and on what terms (and you had better like it; thank you very much). But back then the individual customer had little to no voice. If you didn’t like a company or its product, your options were limited.
Today, companies from industries as diverse as automotive, hospitality and software are enabling their customers to actively take part in many aspects of the product lifecycle. Here are a few examples of what customers can now influence:
- Threadless has mastered outsourcing; their customers design every one of their shirts.
- Mozilla relies in large part on their software development community to determine which features to include in each version of their FireFox browser.
- Nike’s labor practices were exposed, forcing the company to stop using factories with poor labor practices (pdf).
- Neither Google nor Mozilla ever really spend a penny on marketing. It’s always been word of mouth. In fact, Google uses their own customers and partners to tell their story.
In case you don’t recognize it, this is Control.
How Did I Lose Control?
Thank the internet; or more specifically blogs, wikis and similar community and social media technologies. I’ll leave the details of what these are and how to use them to later posts. For now, let’s just refer to these technologies as Social Media Tools (SMTs).
What’s important is to recognize that SMTs are changing the landscape of business. How? Not only do SMTs allow you to communicate with a global audience of potential customers, but they allow your customers to communicate with each other. This is the kicker because it’s not just that Soccer Mom Sally and Joe the Plumber can talk across the backyard fence. Sally and Joe are sharing that same conversation with millions of your customers.
There’s plenty written about how SMTs enable Sally and Joe to tell the world what they think about your products and your company (just Google Social Media for a sample). Most of these posts tell you that these tools allow you to share ideas, make recommendations, fix problems, teach, learn and otherwise contribute to an infinite number of conversations on an infinite number of topics. But what you really need to know that that Sally and Joe are often also talking about YOU.
Yes, YOU personally. With the internet and SMTs, you need to understand one thing; YOU aren’t the anonymous (insert your title here) who can hide behind the corporate brand. YOU, in a very real sense, are an extension of your company’s brand.
If You Love My Product, Why Won’t You Buy It?
Today, YOU, the leader of your company, are held more accountable then ever for how your company behaves. YOU are inextricably linked to your business and products. Now, you may be thinking, “but I am not my product.” But you are. By how you lead your company, you are creating a brand of behavior which is every bit as important as your product. Look at Steve Jobs. He is Apple, just as Bill Gates (even after retirement) is still Microsoft. And this can have a HUGE impact on the bottom line.
While much of Apple’s recent success can be attributed to its brilliant marketing and a great product, many Apple customers are Apple customers because they are turned off by Microsoft as represented by Bill Gates. There’s a reason why Gates is often caricatured as a malevolent Borg.
But more importantly, how many people who think this way use Windows?
This trend can also be applied to people who only represent a product. Tom Cruise’s unusual behavior is widely believed to have seriously diminished the box office () of Mission Impossible 3. And don’t even get me started on Mel Gibson.
The point is; if people don’t like YOU, they are less likely to buy your products.
How do I Regain Control?
You can’t. Well, not entirely, but this is not a bad thing. I’ll cover tactics for using SMTs in later posts, but realize that SMTs can still make you rich; and in ways you probably wouldn’t expect.
If you’re smart (and I know you are), you’ll join the conversation. What will you get out of it? That depends; maybe nothing, or maybe a whole new relationship with your customers. And if that doesn’t convince you, think of it this way; if, by reaching out to your customers using SMTs, you get them to buy your product 5 times this quarter instead of 4, then you’ve increased sales by 20%.
And that’s not bad.
Yes, control is the important part of ownership. Your customers own you and you had better get used to it.