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Structuring for Success

Getting closer to the customer is the goal of every business these days. Today’s social networked, device-driven, always-on world makes it possible for companies to know more about customers and be in better touch with them than ever before.

The problem is that most companies face big stumbling blocks that keep them from doing just that. Namely, established business models, classical organizational charts, entrenched operations and business processes. Traditional brands have more customers and a longer history with consumers than today’s startups. But startups have a better shot at connecting with folks more personally—and disrupting existing business models—because they’re free to innovate. They aren’t weighed down by the status quo. They can do a lot more trial and error in their search to coming up with new ways of getting closer to customers.

One of the most of popular buzzwords trending right now in marketing speak is the “experience economy.” The notion gets at a basic reality. Information empowered, creative and connected consumers experience brands like no other group before them but—just as powerfully—they craft that interaction with brands, they’re in charge of it, and they dictate its terms.

How do you compete in this experience economy? How does a company go about revamping its traditional top-down marketing message, its product-centric organizational structure in order to get to the promised land of a customer-centric focus?

To kick off this change, here are four steps that companies should take to organize your operations more closely around what customers want in order to develop operating models more in tune with the realities of today’s marketplace:

1. Assume someone else is doing it better than you. The notion here is basic but powerful. Customers have so many choices and so much information at their fingertips that they quickly switch between brands, which means that one of your most important tasks is creating an internal culture that’s good with change, that’s constantly assessing customers’ expectations and is willing to adapt to them. This means not simply monitoring your customers and your competitors, but also the customer-focused leaders outside of your industry.

2. Align your processes with your customers’ values. The amount of information available today lets you understand crucial subtleties that distinguish your customers from everyone else’s.

This is the major distinction from the mass market, demographic-driven brand-building models of the past. Use it. Take this very practical example: Don’t obsess about having the fastest pizza delivery times if your customers care more about taste.

3. Double down on the biggest pain points. The friction points customers run into when dealing with your brand are bigger problems than ever. For one thing, social media gadflies have enormous power. But just as crucial is the fact that, given all of the choices they have, customers can simply disappear without warning when they have a disappointing experience. Be proactive in seeking out customer pain points. There are plenty of ways to do this, including self-assessments of the customer journey or appointing a chief customer officer with a real budget. Your goal is not to make every customer happy, of course—you should identify the best customer experiences that deliver the best returns for you. The key, though, is to weave proactive vigilance into your processes.

4. Actively listen to—and involve—employees and partners. If customers are better informed than ever before, so, too, are your employees and partners. Make them your collaborators in monitoring and coming up with ways to improve the customer experience. Think about how to incentivize and inspire these folks. We’ve seen it time and again with some of the most vibrant startups today: Great customer experience begins with engaged customers and partners.

These are just starting points when it comes to getting closer to customers and creating a foundation for crafting new operating and business models. Fundamentally, the issue is that current models are built by function, business unit or geography to maximize revenue and profits, often at the expense of customer relationships. Companies have to come to grips with the fact that customer relationships are now the foundation of success.

Rik Reppe is an advisory principal in the Minneapolis office of New York-based professional services consultancy PwC.