Lets face it. Many of the markets we all play in have either commoditized or are on their way to commoditizing. Product differentiation, once the critical element by which supplier's set themselves apart from competitors is fading. I'm not saying that product innovation isn't critical or that it shouldn't be pursued, or else how do we get these cool new toys but in highly competitive markets, how should you plan on setting yourself apart to gain competitive advantage?
My thesis has always been that Customer Experience is the lever to pull. Driving Customer Intimacy and enlarging the "tribe" of individuals who will evangelize your brand and your solutions is the key differentiator in today's markets. Delighting customers with your products is certainly a step in the right direction but what about the end-to-end experience of obtaining your products, using them, getting serviced on them? Have you studied the way your customers want to acquire and use your solutions? Have you put together a Voice of the Customer program to achieve customer co-innovation? Many of these programs can be facilitated and driven via Social Media tools and techniques. Some of my favorite tactics include:
- Digg-like clones are a great way to promote product ideas and have your customer community weigh in
- Corporate blogging initiatives promote the transparency that many consumers seek today and give them the vital window for them to peer in but for companies to look out on the market and talk with it
- Customer Ethnography - follow me home programs, such as the one Intuit developed to watch their customers actually use their software are critical to customer-led innovation elements. These real time engagements should be paired with online efforts and ongoing discussions that can be held in customer communities.
- Getting out of the way of your customers and prospects - its super when you close a sale but even better when your current customers want to do it for you. Creating the opportunity for customers to evangelize to prospects is a great way to enable Word of Mouth marketing and gaining credibility for your organization - amazing what happens when the organization shuts up and lets the market talk!
- Social Networks which embrace friend and foe - check out GMNext.com. I had a great conversation with Chris Barger, the strategic architect of the site and we discussed in great detail how GM has used this social networking platform to engage with not only proponents but market adversaries - such as the green movement to begin to heal old wounds and work on common solutions. They've launched an explicit blog for this called Our Thoughts, Your Thoughts - kind of like a corporate "He Said, She Said" where both corporate and ideas or positions not taken by GM are also presented. This is then followed up by conversational commentary.
Delivering a compelling and unique customer experience is a huge culture change for many companies. Most believe that they know the customer better than the customer knows his or herself. That'd be incorrect. There are many paths to building these experiences though but I think a great place to start is with Social Media... in a controlled and business-aligned fashion.