by Merlin Hernandez
Consumers today want a more seamless delivery interface, a more personalized and simplified process, and a valued-customer experience but most of all they want it quickly. According to a Cisco Customer Experience Report, the most important attributes in the consumer interface are access/availability of the desired product or service, knowledge and competence in delivery, and efficiency in meeting their individual needs. In this mix what a business needs to survive the far-reaching changes in the contemporary consumer culture is a more specifically customer service orientation for a more satisfied and loyal customer.
Contemporary market leaders typically have narrowed their business focus to deliver superior customer value in one of the three value disciplines – cost leadership (best prices), product leadership (highest quality), customer intimacy (most responsive service culture) – while maintaining industry standards in the other two. Companies like FedEx and Home Depot that outstrip the competition in terms of profitability tend to excel in more than one value discipline. A firm’s relative position within an industry is given by the type(s) of value discipline chosen for competitive advantage e.g. cost leadership vs customer intimacy. Dual value disciplines as the strategic focus for a service business can become the basis of sustained market leadership. But for a small business especially a start up operating in the service sector, cost and product leadership within limited resource capabilities may not be possible. There can thus be no compromise on the customer focus.
What does this say about the business of service in the SME sector? In a nutshell, a service experience that is so remarkable that it stands out from the competition. But even more important, it is burned into the memory of the customer. The service business, by its very nature, is one of fulfilling customer expectation which intrinsically entails a value discipline of customer intimacy. The emphasis is on attention to customer detail and customer service, customization, CRM efficiencies, surpassing customer expectations, timely delivery, reliability, and lifetime value. But the same can be said for a consumer product. Companies like Apple and Nike have so surpassed industry standards as to have raised customer expectations with superior products that set a higher standard which competitors are not easily able to reach. This requires intimate and detailed customer knowledge with the kind of operational flexibility that allows fast response to changing customer needs and preferences.
Small businesses are at a distinct advantage for that kind of flexibility and intimate relationships. They are not structurally distant from the customer and bogged down by multi-tiered delivery systems and processes. In factoring customer needs into the strategic mix, businesses need to identify value-creating strategies that are most appropriate. The target market remains the most influential stakeholder around which to structure a business, and customers buy value. Market leaders are adept at understanding the value drivers that motivate their customer base. And small businesses remain closer to the ground. This does not mean that there is no need for rigorous market assessment before embarking on a small business venture. But shaping the service to more closely fit customer need brands the business as customer-focused and builds customer loyalty.
Assessment of the target market, however, should present a customer that would be more interested in a best total solution that meets their needs where quality delivery is the primary consideration. A business servicing this market segment needs to be immersed in continuous delivery process innovation and improvement to both satisfy and anticipate customer needs. This would reflect the value discipline of customer intimacy which places a stronger emphasis on more esoteric and long-lasting value e.g. organic food and good health, hypo-allergenic natural cosmetics, recycled gift paper and cards, customized cooking oils or jams – natural raw materials, locally grown, chemical-free, non-GMO product etc. Value here is described as relevancy and engagement in response to long term need and wider societal benefit. Strong value added strategies and deeper customer relationships might be critical for a new small business. It can bring the solid market differentiation that gives the new business the lead time for developing brand awareness and customer loyalty. This will consolidate the market presence and establish a customer base before the competition comes knocking.
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Merlin Hernandez is an entrepreneurial development and management consultant who operates mainly in the small and medium enterprise sector. For more information on this and other topics, please send enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org