Having the customer in mind is not enough for small businesses to compete, they need to be customer-obsessed.

So what does that mean?

Many companies call themselves “customer-centric” and they want very much to fulfill their customer’s needs. However, now that we are living the “age of the customer,” according to Forrester Research Inc., it is not enough to follow the traditional principle of “the customer is always right.”

Read on and learn about the four pillars of customer obsessed companies.

Today small businesses need to understand their customer and have “one on one” interactions in order to make sure they feel they are being heard. This differs from previous decades — where demographics and other statistics were used to gauge a customer’s interest. But today stats alone will not do the trick. So before we go a little further, let’s have a quick walk through the past decades to learn how the age of the customer is different today from the last 50 years.

A New Era Has Begun

From the early 1900s to the 1960s, mass manufacturing was the main goal and what propelled large powerhouses such as Ford, P&G and Sony to great success. Advertising was aspirational and while these companies attempted to target their messaging to customers through print and catalogue outlets, it was a very one to million ratio — companies expounding on their prowess to the nameless masses. Customer loyalty was important of course, but the concept of “customer’s rights” and the ability of people to rally around a product was not as much of an issue as it is today. Plus, there was not as much competition back then…

The next 30 years were called the age of distribution because global transportation systems made the distribution of products the key factor for global players such as Walmart, UPS and Toyota. Mass communication in the form of radio and television did offer more opportunities for large companies to tailor their promotions to certain types of programming in order to reach their demographic and instill customer loyalty.

The age of information has only just come upon us in the past 20 years. Networked computers and IT were responsible for the real-time point-of-sale data and global manufacturing supply chains leading to the success of global players like Amazon, Google and MBNA. But the big deal — the advent of broadband in the home and workplace infused consumers with power and suddenly marketing took on a whole new look and meaning. It was a one to one relationship and marketing professionals had to literally learn how to develop true customer loyalty to make their companies a success.

Buyers Have More Power Than Ever

Customers are able to find the cheapest prices for a product from all over the world. They have full insight into your products by reading online reviews or using mobile web access to find out about your competitors, your service and your pricing. The only thing that has not changed is the loyalty of satisfied customers. Small businesses and start-ups should strongly concentrate on customer loyalty, knowledge and retention.

If you want to become a customer-obsessed company you should invest your energy and budget into strategies that offer you insight into knowledge of and engagement with your customers.

The Four Pillars of Customer-Obsessed Companies

1) Speed:

Customer-obsessed companies do everything to be flexible and follow customers into new markets or channels. Organize your management structures in a way that you can react fast or even anticipate changes.

2) Flexibility:

If you think that linking customers to mobile contracts or forcing them to use your proprietary technology creates loyalty, you are mistaken. It just prevents them temporarily from fleeing to your competitors. But it does definitely not create happiness. However, trying to prevent your customers from leaving is more expensive than providing enough flexibility to satisfy them.

3) Global:

New markets in Brazil, India, China and Russia are emerging and might be regions to focus on if you are ready for global expansion. Companies that only concentrate on a home-country perspective could miss the chance to tap new customers.

4) Transparency:

You won´t stop your customers from using every possible channel to find out about your products. Especially mobile channels are key when satisfying today´s customer needs. Updated information in the cloud and customizable apps are therefore one of the keys for a customer-obsessed company.

Apart from those four pillars, don´t forget to maintain a strong customer service. Good customer service is an excellent way to build relationships. Having a problem-solving mentality instead of hiring a bunch of call center slaves as well as investment in training for your team to become conversational experts will reward you with what makes the difference in the age of the customer: Repeat business with happy customers.

If you have a web presence you can investigate online customer service software or compare social CRM applications to help you serve better your clients online.

Image courtesy of Flickr user MK Ultra