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Rob Preston
Rob Preston
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Down To Business: Engage With Customers, Don't Just Humor Them

If your culture insulates departments from creative destruction, discourages risk-taking, and thus resists bringing customers into company decision-making, then your organization faces huge problems.

In case you missed the memo, your customers want into your inner circle. Whether they're buyers of your company's manufactured goods, consumers of its services, channel and retail partners, or even internal end users of the hardware, software, and services your IT organization deploys, they're no longer resigned to taking what's most efficient and expedient for you to deliver. Instead, your customers want--and increasingly demand--to be treated like collaborators.

AutoNation, the country's largest chain of auto dealers, is a prime example of how customers are taking charge. Fed up with getting stuck with inventory its own customers don't want to buy, it's pressuring the Big Three automakers to give it a bigger say in what vehicles they produce.

The Wall Street Journal reports that AutoNation wants General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler to work with it in analyzing its data on the best-selling vehicle configurations, so that they can align their manufacturing more directly with buyer tastes. Sounds like a no-brainer, yet the Big Three are so rooted in a mass-production model that they're paying little more than lip service so far to this demand-driven approach. "It's not like we have some crisis," the Journal quotes Mark LeNeve, head of North American sales and marketing for GM, which continues to lose market share, is awash in red ink, and whose unsold inventories dwarf those of Toyota and Honda, even relative to its size.

As we report in our cover story this week, Wells Fargo, Motorola, and other companies are inviting customers, partners, and suppliers into their development discussions via blogs, wikis, and other Web 2.0 tools. More formally, computer, apparel, and boat manufacturers, as well as content and other service providers, arm their customers with Web tools to configure and customize their products. With competitors just a click away, companies would be delinquent not to engage their customers in more creative ways.

Unfortunately, many of the builders and managers of the IT systems that make demand-driven business models possible are laggards when it comes to empowering their own end-user customers. How often are the search tools, Web apps, smartphones, and other technologies that employees say they need rejected out of hand because they're not IT-sanctioned? Those employees, especially the power users who bring in the dough for their companies, don't want to hear about IT's security or management concerns (no matter how legitimate those concerns are). They should insist that their IT colleagues work with them to identify and deploy the right tools, consistent with their companies' information architectures and policies. It must be a two-way conversation.

The main obstacle to this kind of "customer centricity" is culture, not practicality. No question, on-demand manufacturing and IT have plenty of pitfalls--for one thing, consumers and end users don't always know what they want and need. But a pitfall isn't an abyss. If your business and IT culture insulates departments from creative destruction, discourages risk-taking, rewards the status quo, and thus resists bringing customers and other "outsiders" into company decision-making, then your organization faces huge problems. This era of turbulence and ambiguity won't pass us by just because we keep our heads down.

"Today, we are much better in balancing production and demand than we were two years ago," the Journal quotes Troy Clarke, president of GM North America. "If the trend continues, we will be right where we want to be." If the trend continues? Not to pick on GM, which has come a long way as a manufacturer of quality cars and trucks, but Clarke's comments suggest no sense of urgency in keeping up with customer demands. The world's biggest manufacturer can't be just a passive onlooker when it comes to customer-engaged innovation. And neither can you.

Rob Preston,
VP/Editor In Chief

To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.

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