The Hunger for Personalization & Connection: The Next Mega Business Opportunity?


Rodney King

Twenty-first century life is fragmented. People are becoming overwhelmed by technology. It takes the average person between one and two hours to clear e-mails in the morning. Work hours have become longer as deadlines have become shorter. The boss is more demanding. We find ourselves multi-tasking continuously. We’re on a telephone call while answering e-mail; we’re talking to our kids while trying to catch up on the latest news on TV.

In all of this frenzy of multi-tasking and distraction we still need to make time for our families, and for ourselves.

We crave time-out. Personal time. Time to feel whole. We have realized that more options, and more choices, doesn’t mean more satisfaction. As a business owner, and entrepreneur, I believe this fragmentation is and will change the expectations and demands of my future customers. It will create a customer that feels the need to be part of a community, a desire to be treated like a person and not a commodity. It will bring about an age of searching for custom-made personalised products, experiences and services — and a rejection to the one-size-fits-all approach often presented by the standard businesses model.

Simply, people are resisting standardisation. If you are in business, then that’s both your business challenge — and an opportunity. The opportunity to create an environment, a product, or a service for people who want to feel supported and to be self-directed. Like it or not, if you are in business, your customers are changing. A new generation of customers are emerging and their role is changing rapidly to people who are connected, informed and active in the decisions they make.

These changes are passing most entrepreneurs and business owners by. They are not focusing on understanding this new customer who comes through their door. Purchase decisions are no longer simply made on best price or unlimited choice. Price may have worked in the past, choice may have worked in the past — especially in a time before the internet boom — were customers were not so well informed about the differences between products and services. But the world’s got smaller and information is now freely available. Customers, your clients can pick and choose. More importantly they are making these choices through a thematic community, where they share ideas with other individuals through social media, without either geographical or social barriers. As people become better informed, as they realise they can have not just a choice but a say in how they are marketed too, they will seek out products and services that cater to their personal needs. They will seek out individualised programs, services and experiences and the good news is they won’t be afraid to pay for it.

Contrast this with the traditional competitive business model, where often business success is dependent on volume and choice. As smart savvy customers who have purchasing power move away from a one-size-fits-all service or product the numbers in these volume based businesses will fall. A price war will break out, and profit margins will drop. Business owners using this approach will have to work longer hours to make the same profit or market to emerging economies where prices will have no choice but to be low. They will constantly be on the look out for marketing gimmicks to keep ahead of the game. They’ll spend more time, money and energy on advertising than on what really counts: the new generation of consumer, who wants a personalised experience, and who want to feel connected again.

Focusing on the customer as client, not just a number, but as an individual, that is unique, is going to be good business in the future (but you could start right now). This new emerging self styled customer is more interested in the value and how that product or service makes them feel, as well as how it affects the environment, than the particular brand, or options on offer. While I am in the service industry, I see this change affecting every kind of business, all over the world. It’s a global shift — and one that every business owner needs to wake up too.

Lets take the music business for example. Sales of music CDs are plummeting. According to a report from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) digital music revenue has overtaken CD sales for the first time globally. People would rather go to iTunes or increasingly one of the alternative file sharing sites (which will increasingly become serious competition to iTunes) where they have a choice in which songs they want to buy, download and listen too. Why buy a CD where you have little or no decision on what would be on it, when you can make your own choices and mix and match as you like based on your own personal style? The internet is not immune to this personalisation of experience, with an increasing number of people finding ways to block ads. Being interrupted by advertising when you didn’t give permission is no longer cool. I asked my 14 year old son for instance why he no longer reads Popular Mechanics? His answer, “I hate that there seems to be more ads than content, seeing so many ads puts me off reading the magazine.” Simply people are taking back their sovereignty, their time, and deciding who will or wont sell to them. Even big brand names like Nike are catching on, now offering you the opportunity to design your own pair of shoes with the colour, design and image that best “describes” you.

What does this all mean? Customers of today, want to be authors of their own products, creators of their own content. At the high end, they’re looking for programs, services and products that are custom-built for them. If you as a business owner don’t offer it, they will make their own. Businesses will no longer be able to simply dictate to the market what a person can or should buy, or decide what kind of options will be available.

In my view to meet the needs of this twenty-first century customer, businesses will have to change their mindset from high-volume one size fits all, to going small, and intimate. Here small implies a series of highly individualised experiences. Working on this scale means that you know exactly why each person is one of your customers. When you work with them you’re doing it with their needs in mind. Designing programs, experiences and products that make them feel it was specifically designed for them. Even if you are a large company and have a ton of customers, it would make sense to know at this point what makes them different, what makes them the same? I see a future where a team of concierges replace sales people, who are then assigned to groups of customers based on their needs, what they value, and what they most want. The role of these concierges will be to constantly tweak the experience and personalise it to the customers they serve.

As a business owner you cannot hope to create this kind of personalised experience within the traditional mass sales model. When you get to know your customers personally, you will find that there will be better buy-in from them. As a business owner you will feel like you are really making a difference in your customers lives. With this new approach customers will listen to you with respect but also have the confidence to challenge you because you’ve created a platform for open communication to take place. This means that your communication skills will improve and you will have a deep understanding of your customer needs. Innovation will be quicker to the market because the feedback will come from the people who are the most important, those who buy from you.

As a smart savvy business owner, on par with your smart savvy customers — you will be offering a program, service or product experience that no one can compete with. You will realise it is not longer just about the product, but the experience you offer. In our fragmented quick fix society, people intuitively know that exclusivity and personal attention comes at a price, and they will be happy to pay for it. I foresee the reemergence of the corner greengrocer, who knew everyones name and knew what his customers really liked. Just in my neighbourhood in Johannesburg small ‘Mom and Pop’ businesses are beginning to pop up all over the place again, and as the greengrocer before them, they know my name, they ask after my kids and slip in one of their new pastries just for me to try. Of course I could get it cheaper at one of the big mega stores. But if I am honest with myself it’s not about saving money or even the product (as great as they are), it’s about the experience, its about connection, and community. I don’t mind paying extra for that.

Approaching your business in this way will transform your marketing. Instead of the constant frantic search for new ways to get customers to purchase your product, service or program, your customers will talk about this fantastic experience they are having and they will bring in the new customers you need to remain successful. Your existing customers will stick with you, because it wont be about the brand, or even the product or service you offer, but rather about how it made them feel. They will feel connected, part of a community, and not simply a commodity to be minded.

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