The potential for success of incoming business leaders is usually judged in terms of their past experience and accomplishments.  If they’ve done it once, they can do it again.  What if, however, the sum total of this experience simply blocks their ability to form an accurate view of the future?  To understand market trends and how the organization must adapt to stay relevant?  Do leaders manage well on what they know, or what they need to know?  And in driving the enterprise to growth and prosperity, is it more important to have the CEO with a deep management resume or a deep understanding of the technology tools and concepts that cement customer relationships?

These are the types of questions that Scott Klososky, a technology speaker, author, consultant and entrepreneur, recently posed to the annual conference of my association.  Our members are customer care executives from brand name companies, individuals with a keen interest in the integration of data gathered from across the enterprise to build better, stronger, more durable customer relationships—relationships that put the customer first.  We share the belief that knowledge is power and, therefore, that information-infused customer care must be a core value and a strategic imperative of any company seeking to grow and prosper in the years ahead.

But how do companies translate this belief into action?  What we all soon realized is that Klososky is a technology thinker who, in sharing his thoughts on the topic, takes no prisoners.  And to his mind, the business future belongs to those who can see it accurately now.  Klososky calls this ability to see down the road in five to ten year increments “high beam leadership.”

Most C-suite executives do not have it, Klososky says, and, worse still, they are not even trying to get it. The problem seems to be an unwillingness of business leaders to let go of the past and embrace the new:

“[Executives] do not set aside time in an organized way and really study the trends,” Klososky says, adding, “There are also people who don’t have the clean eye to put their brain in the place where they say, ‘In five years things will be very different from today.  How will they be different?’”

Instead, an over-reliance on past experience clouds a future view.  “It would be highly unusual for me to meet with a banker who has the ability to look out into the future and have any idea how banking is going to be different.  It is hard for them to make their brain go there.  They’ve seen banking for a decade or two and most of what forms their opinion is what they’ve seen over the last ten to twenty years.  They are not good at being able to extrapolate out and say, ‘here’s what it is likely to look like over the next ten years,’” Klososky says.

One thing that will be different is the type of relationship that customers will expect to have with their vendors.  Like the days of shopping on Main Street, consumers interacting through social networks will expect their merchants to know them, to anticipate their needs, to understand their preferences, and to solve their problems.  Customer care executives are uniquely situated to help their companies build these types of relationships.  They not only understand consumer needs generally but also possess tremendous amounts of data that provides valuable insights into the likes and dislikes of customers. However, these critical customer relationships are only realized if  business leaders share this view and put the resources in place to support it.

According to Klososky, “Today, for instance, in a lot of cases all you know is [the customer’s] transaction history—name, address, phone number, email address—that’s it.  In the highly social world where there’s all kinds of information freely available online, where people are not as nervous about giving answers to your questions, customer care groups should be trying to gather 20, 30, 40 fields of information on the customer.  Because the more they know about the customer the better they can serve them.  A lot [of companies] make zero attempt to try to learn more.”

Knowing more begins with knowing enough to collect the data themselves.  Again, Klososky says part of that comes down to the willingness of leadership to use the technology for this purpose.  While older executives may feel burned by past attempts to build enterprise-wide information systems, Klososky maintains that every year brings advances in the technology needed to manage and move big data—technology that he calls “digital plumbing.”

“What it meant to build digital plumbing in the early 80s is completely different than what it means today,” he says.  “Technologists look at it as plumbing, and we’re always trying to create new standards that allow things to connect easier, that allow data to flow more seamlessly, or to store data in better ways.  Every year the vendors come out with better products, services and tools to assemble the plumbing.”

Even with the tech pipes in place, companies may struggle with how to manage customer data.  That’s where data analytics and the ability to achieve an accurate view of the future come into focus.

When Klososky visits clients, “The first thing I’m going to look at are the data that they are storing.  There are three piles of data.  The data that they are already gathering.  The data that they don’t gather but they could if they would just ask for it.  I am going to look and see how solid their plan is to double or triple the size of the data and do they have any idea of what they want to get next?  And the third pile is third-party data, either free data or data that you have to acquire that allows you to do mash ups and see different kinds of analytics.”

While many companies collecting transaction and customer data would use it to create dashboards and customer reports, Klososky says he would look to see if business leaders are insisting that the data be leveraged in other ways, such as the creation of business rules to automate specific actions or alerts, the the use of predictive analysis to extrapolate and spot trends, and data visualization to go beyond routine interpretation of information.

“Are you doing pie charts and bar charts and think you’ve arrived?” he asks,  “Or are you more clever in how you are doing the data visualization?  You can show your sales as a pie chart…Or do a heat map so you can see geographically on a color coded map where your sales are coming from and show those heat maps over time.  Shift them by time of day.  It shows you the sort of trending or anomaly you never would have seen if you just look at numbers.”

It all seems to come down to a willingness of business leaders to look ahead.  That means having the commitment to turn data, no matter whether from marketing and sales, operations, or customer care business units into a competitive advantage.  For the C-suite executive, the change does not require the technical know-how to implement systems so much as the technology sophistication to understand paradigm shifting concepts like cloud or big data and the intent to deploy technology solutions in strategic ways.

According to Klososky, high beam leadership vision also requires customer care executives to step forward:

“There is a lot of cool technology that could help them do world-class things in building and nurturing customer relationships.  In a lot of cases the customer care groups are very reactive when they reach into the technology tool box.  If competitors do it, then they do it.  But they are not reaching in and saying, ‘let’s be creative and proactive about how to use these things to improve the customer relationship.’  It’s risk, a lack of knowledge, or they do not even perceive a responsibility.  ‘Is that my responsibility to try to apply business intelligence to customers and create a customer intelligence model or to put 20 more fields into our customer relationship management system?’ Yes, absolutely it is your responsibility.”

Klososky says he recently booked a round trip airline ticket with a premium travel card company.  When weather forced the cancellation of his return flight, the card company failed to notify him or to offer any assistance.  Instead, the frequent traveler learned of the cancellation through his TripIt application.

“I could call [the card company] and say, ‘hey folks, I pay you thousands of dollars a year to help me out with my travel.  When I say help me with my travel, you think I mean help me make tickets.  I could go on Expedia and make my own tickets.  The whole reason I use somebody like you guys is because I am hoping for a different level of care.’”

With the right data and the right business rules, the situation could have been avoided.  Klososky could have been rerouted or delayed his travel plans.  Instead, he was left fuming.  The good news is that smart companies are getting smarter every day in their use of data analytics and business intelligence assets.  When it comes to building long-lasting customer relationships, the best organizations may know where they want to go and how customer relationship strategies can help them get there.   But in the increasingly globalized, mobilized and digitally socialized world of business today, the road traveled says little about the road ahead.   Business leaders—both those in the traditional C-suite and customer care executives themselves–need to know what’s up ahead–both the problems and the opportunities of a rapidly evolving marketplace.  In short, they need to flip on the high beams.

The future of business depends on it.