One of the things I enjoy most about my position is the chance to get face time with hundreds of our customers around the world. I meet other CEOs and company executives. I meet marketing VPs and customer service pros as well as community managers. Financial services firms, retailers, tech companies, and communications service providers are all on my agenda. Their offerings and products are radically different. But one thing that they all have in common and share candidly with me is that their customers’ expectations are higher than ever.
When I ask them why, they frequently say, “They expect me to have easy returns just like Amazon” or “They want to give me instant ratings like Uber does” or “They expect a response on Twitter in less than an hour and are no longer using our call center for help”.
Across industries, across geographies, and across all demographics, companies are no longer winning consumer love against category competitors. Today the battle for consumer loyalty is against companies in any category that define excellent service, lightning fast responses, and bespoke experiences. According to a recent Forrester Research report, only 11 percent  of companies deliver outstanding service. Increasingly, those quality service definitions are being established digitally — online, on mobile devices, and in apps.
At Lithium, I’ve been talking to the world’s best brands about this era of extreme consumer expectations. And I’ve been working with executives on how their digital practices stack up in this new age. I want to help our brands’ consumers find the answers they want and share their experiences (hopefully great ones!) with fellow fans, followers, and customers. And I want my customers in turn to get outsized returns from their consumers.
Here is how I net it out in my private conversations:
- There is no time like now: established businesses with decades of success are losing market share, revenue, and consumers to startups selling similar merchandise — but in smarter ways and on consumers’ terms. Many — especially in retail — are shutting stores or going out of business completely. Two-thirds (and more in some countries) of consumers call your support center as the option of last resort. Consumer trust in advertising continues to reach new lows. People increasingly turn to friends and family (yes, “Facebook friends” included) to guide their purchase decisions and seek validation pre- and post-purchase. Your business cannot afford to delay making some fundamental changes that incorporate digital and social more boldly. Whatever need you leave untapped a competitor will find–and fast.
- Digital marketing is marketing: if you have a digital marketing practice that is separate from your marketing mix, you’re missing the point. Consumers want to interact with you and your products as it is convenient for them — and in the online and offline worlds. Whether you are running a purely bricks and mortar outfit or not (most likely you have a mix), your customers are accustomed to great experiences from their digital experiences. Yes, digital is the new frontier. Concurrently, it is also the new status quo against which all other expectations are measured.
- Embrace your total community: customers, prospects, and former customers are all part of your total community — influencers, pundits, and tastemakers may also be in that audience. Don’t think too narrowly about who came in your shop or who is in your CRM system. An entire world is out there waiting to love you — but you have to be the one to open your arms first and give your community a reason to come forward. And just because someone hasn’t done business with you that is captured in the last six months of your “hot targets” list doesn’t mean that she won’t be back soon — or that she isn’t recommending you to others in ways that your CRM database was never designed to capture.
- Help people find answers (and happiness) before you market to them: when a consumer has a problem or question, the last thing he wants is an upsell or another sales pitch for a different product. Savvy companies have come to realize that the best marketing starts with outstanding service. As you build a reputation and relationship based on serving your consumers’ needs, they’ll come back to you with new ones.
- Engagement is not the goal for most businesses: revenue, market share, and margins are really what you are probably after. But engagement is a powerful way to get those. So find ways to share compelling content, anecdotes, and useful information without burdening your consumers with spam and constant email promotions. Offer them experiences that are related to your product or service even if it isn’t something you sell. And don’t think that someone’s engagement needs to be at a constant level. I don’t always see my close friends for dinner every weekend — but it doesn’t diminish their importance to me or my happiness when I am with them.
- Use negative feedback to create positive outcomes: not everything that your consumers say will be easy to hear or even polite. It may be downright vitriolic. Correct errors, admit mistakes, incorporate feedback into a better offering. In fact, listen carefully for ideas that may give you a competitive edge. That feedback may not feel like the corporate “constructive criticism” you’re used to — but it is in there waiting to be leveraged. It is your responsibility to ideate and improve from that feedback. Take it as a gift.
Yes, your consumers have extreme expectations today. And yes, they can be met. You just need to shift your mindset, lead with digital, tap the power of the crowds in your total community to help you along the way, and try some new approaches. Extreme expectations can absolutely become outstanding satisfaction.
 Forrester “Surprise! Customer Service Does Not Have To Be Delightful” (June 12, 2014)
Rob Tarkoff is President and CEO of Lithium Technologies.