about the customer...
Customer-centric value creation, mass customization, personalization – these are keywords that underlie a new paradigm for everyone involved in design, product development, and marketing. They sound like a new choice for designing individual products and services, but also seem to indicate a real overhaul of the existing relationship between the customer and their product and service providers.
Photography Cyprian Koscielniak
But what do those keywords mean? Professor Vera Blazevic focuses on these concepts and shares her ideas about the future role of customers and everyone who works with them.
Thanks to modern, digital production processes, it is possible to produce under the conditions of mass production and individualize products at the same time. You can choose to have your name engraved on a product, create the ideal lamp for your living room, or wear a suit that is as good as tailor-made.
‘The question for a product is not “what are its features?” but “what job does it need to do?”’
This new paradigm has led to a change in the role of the customer, whose influence has grown. Rather than looking for a specific product, they can look for the individual added value the product may provide them. So, rather than searching for a specific washbasin for the new bathroom, they ask: ‘What do I need to feel comfortable in my bathroom in the morning? What helps me to relax there after a long working day?’. These questions go far beyond finding the proper washbasin and instead arrive at a completely new perspective for the bathroom.
Companies that strive to answer these questions need to build a closer bond with their customers. Dialogue and interaction between manufacturers and their customers are therefore becoming key. This has a huge advantage for companies – they gain greater insight into customers’ individual needs – and the customer himself or herself, who makes a substantial contribution to product development and innovation. It also means that companies can no longer rely on simply delivering a product, with service packages, product bundles, apps, and more providing new opportunities and creating added value. In the end, it is less about brand loyalty and more about value loyalty, where value can have different aspects.
The old model was the value chain; the new model is networking.’
This is not an easy task to fulfil. When companies are in direct contact with their customers, the old value chain of customer, dealer, distribution, and manufacturer no longer serves a use. Modern companies need to build ecosystems and networks that respond to individual customer requirements and identify customers’ latent needs.
What does this mean in practice? Let’s return to the example of the bathroom. Designing a bathroom based on the size of the room and the general wishes of a customer – if they want it to be modern or rather traditional – is rather easy. But how do you approach the question of what the customer needs to get going in the morning and relax in the evening?
What value can a bathroom provide for an individual customer? It’s the first task of the architect or designer to find that out. In the end, they will come up with a solution that offers not simply a bathroom design but a room that delivers freshness, comfort, calmness, or whatever the customer wishes. The architect may need to take into consideration how they can make use of light, sound (in most cases), or different fragrances, none of which you’ll find in a standard product catalogue.
At the same time, the customer’s value set may play an important role. They’re probably not only asking how the bathroom can improve their well-being but may also be concerned about environmental aspects. If the architect wants to meet all these expectations, they will most probably need a large network of partners. These may include light or sound designers or even perfume experts for the well-being part and experts on sustainability to create an environmentally friendly design. The list of partners could be quite long and varied…
In general, the result of this trend is a rising complexity, with more market players and less structure. Building trust in different directions is central: this encompasses trust between customers and manufacturers and trust between the partners within the network.
‘Architects need to be open to new partnerships beyond the “usual suspects” in their industry.’
This means a new way of thinking for everyone involved. To name one example: in the past, architects worked with the building owners and the tradesmen who were needed to create a building. Nowadays, they have to take much more into consideration. As a consequence, their network will expand to include other architects (who probably specialize in a different field), scientists, innovation scientists, environmental researchers, and the manufacturers, who provide full service and consultancy rather than deliver a product from the catalogue.
‘Open-mindedness, curiosity, and creativity – these are the new job skills.’
Job descriptions will change rapidly. In a world where artificial intelligence is able to take over many routine, structured tasks, humans will have the chance to focus on their creativity. Let’s have a look at the architect again: the idea that a computer is able to draw a house based on specific input is not such a distant fantasy. But how can the architect answer the customers’ questions: ’What type of house will help me to relax and feel comfortable? And how can we make sure the design of the house and the technology used is in harmony with the house’s surroundings and the environment in general?’. In that case, you better not ask the computer. But an architect who is looking to develop an individual solution for their customer will surely find ways to solve this task. They will move away from their standard routines and get into a new way of thinking. They will be a psychologist, identifying their customers’ latent needs, a networker, linking the different disciplines, and a designer, creating a unique building for a unique customer.
‘Digitization drives the development of enlightened customers.’
The driving factor for these developments is digitization. Many people regard digitization as a threat to their job. Indeed, computers and robots are already able to do many things that previously needed a human workforce. But it also opens the way for this customer-centric approach. The voice of the customer becomes stronger. With a large amount of information and technology at hand, customers can reach a new stage of enlightenment, enhancing their influence and contributing to their environment in a way they feel comfortable with. If that is one result of digitization, it’s worth going that way.
Professor Vera Blazevic teaches at Radboud University’s Nijmegen School of Management in the Netherlands and is a visiting professor at RWTH Aachen University in Germany. She focuses on stakeholder-oriented networks and their impact on creating customer value, which will vastly change how we look at products and how companies and service providers alike will have to adapt to a different kind of marketing.