The connected customer, redux

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Smart devices in the home linked via the Web to a mobile phone app make possible a new breed of “connected customer.” We’ve been telling this story for a while, and it gets truer all the time.

We’ve written here before about the “connected customer,” or those users with whom you continue to have a post-purchase relationship courtesy of an app on a mobile phone. We’re returning to the topic today because even though Arrayent has been talking about connected customers from the very beginning, we ourselves never cease to be impressed with how much this idea is resonating with our own customers. Almost every week, we hear of some new reason why a company would want to have connected customers in the first place.

For example, consider what we heard from the big appliance manufacturer that we’ve been talking to. One of the challenges they face is that once they ship a product, its feature set is essentially set in stone. While R&D work continues in their labs, any breakthroughs they make can’t be taken advantage of by current customers, who will have to wait five or 10 years, when they buy a new machine.

But what if appliances could get “flash updates” via the Web the way many computer components do? Suppose, for instance, that the chemists and industrial engineers who collaborate on detergent formulas and washing machine design came up with an especially effective but eco-sensitive way to wash dirty blue jeans? Anyone responsible for doing a household’s laundry would want to know about that right away, and not 10 years hence, when the kids will probably be grown up and long gone.

While we won’t go so far as to predict there will be “app stores” for washing machines or dishwashers, it’s easy to foresee how companies will be able to take advantage of connectivity to offer periodic updates and improvements to products that otherwise have very long life cycles. And it’s also easy to see how consumers will come to prefer updateable appliances — living, breathing machines, as it were — to those that might be obsolete soon after they’re purchased.

Besides appliances that can learn new things over time, what are some of the other advantages of having connected customers? Here are a few of the ideas we at Arrayent keep hearing from the companies we are helping bringing smart, connected devices to market.

* Diagnostics to help with warranty repair. Right now, fixing a broken appliance in the field often involves at least two (quite expensive) rolls of a repair truck: First to diagnose the problem, and second, accompanied by all the parts necessary to actually fix the problem. With a properly-designed connected device, the manufacturer would be able to see what the problem was right away, remotely and without a field trip. The repair person could take care of everything with a single visit, cutting maintenance costs considerably.

* Real-time product feedback. The more information engineers can have about how customers are using the current generation of a product, the better the job they can do with designing the next one. But today, engineers are often flying blind, as they have no idea about what is being done with their products in the real world. They might have spent a lot of time on a feature that consumers end up ignoring; conversely, users might find new and surprising ways of taking advantage of a feature that the company barely gave any thought to. Being able to have access to this sort of information in real time can be invaluable as a company plans for the evolution of its customer offerings. Since connected devices can be programmed to “phone home” periodically with this sort of information, it’s easy to get the crucial customer data into the right hands.

* Consumables. Printer companies were among the first to realize that they could take advantage of the connectivity and computing power of their devices to monitor the use of consumables, in their case, ink. It’s routine now for computer users to get notified on their computers when the printer cartridge is running low; some companies even allow customers to enable an automatic shipment of a replacement cartridge as soon as the alert is triggered. But what is good for ink today can work for any number of other products tomorrow. Anti-spotting agents for dishwashers. Replacement filters for HVAC systems — or even vacuum cleaners. The list goes on and on.

* Upselling new services — or simply keeping in touch. There are many reasons to want to have an ongoing relationship with a customer. You might have new services you want to offer them, or you might simply want to keep a conversation going in the interest of building goodwill. In the days when the only link you had with a user was through the warranty registration card they may or may not have filled out, this wasn’t easy to do. But these days, when they’re accessing a mobile phone app from you every few hours, the situation is entirely different. You’ll have a direct line to customers; making the most productive use of it is entirely up to you.

By: Shane Dyer, President of Arrayent