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When you use modern connectivity technology to hook your device up to a Web app or a mobile phone, you’re creating a lot more than a new user interface. As far as your customers are concerned, it can be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Today’s manufacturers face a brutal marketplace, with global competitors hammering them on costs, and big retail chains too often having the upper hand in crucial issues like pricing and display.

Manufacturers have become too lean to afford the marketing efforts companies once used to have to “build their brand” with customers.  As a result, when customers are shopping in a store or on a Web site, they often make decisions on price alone. Brand loyalty often means nothing, a severe disadvantage to companies who have been in their industries for decades, if not generations. And except for the few shoppers who mail in registration cards, you have little idea who your customers are, meaning, among other things, that you have nothing in the way of leads for future sales.

The news here isn’t all bad, though. “Internet-connected” devices are giving companies the chance of starting over. If suddenly your customers are logging into your web site — say to control their thermostats or configure their household lighting system — then whole new worlds are opened up for you, assuming you’re flexible enough to take advantage of the opportunities.

As IBM said in a recent report about “The Challenge of the Connected Consumer,” manufacturers benefit the most from a Web or mobile presences are those who can “shift their mindset from one-time transactional product sales to building relationships with individual consumers.

There are a long list of ways you can do that, many of them borrowed from the emerging field of “social media.” (It goes without saying that you need to respect your customer’s privacy and get permission from them before attempting to build any sort of relationship.)

Say you’re in the thermostat business. It’s safe to assume that your customers care about utility bills, and will appreciate whatever smart, new energy savings information you can pass along. No matter what your product is, your in-house experts, or those at your trade association, will surely have tips about “best practices” your customers will appreciate knowing.

This includes whether or not they are getting the most of the product they already own. If you can tell from usage data that your customers aren’t taking advantage of a particularly helpful feature, you can alert them to what they are missing via some follow-up education on their product. (And you could also get your designers involved, in case they want to change the design to make the feature more apparent in a new release.)

Web communications are useful during replacement cycles, like letting the owners of carbon monoxide detectors know that it’s time to swap out their old units for new ones. They can also be the launching pad for new services your company might be offering — say an “energy audit” that will help homeowners insulate walls or ceilings, or weather alert that will use text messages or emails to warn about sudden freezing or drought conditions.

And a Web site with a smartly-executed Help section and carefully-written FAQs can help reduce time-consuming and expensive calls to your help desk.

In short, think of a sale not as the end of a transaction, but as the start of a conversation.

By: Shane Dyer, President of Arrayent