Over the past two decades, purchaser power has risen significantly. This leap in consumer strength stems to a large extent from the many technological breakthroughs and related social changes which have provided the buying public with the platform and infrastructure needed to gain a new level of influence. The information revolution has given individuals access to quick price comparison tools, while the launch of the internet allows them to voice their opinions in public whenever they want to. Talkbacks, forums, blogs and social media provide an arena to give feedback and rank the products we consume. To top it all, the introduction of delayed viewing options, such as Tivo, has crushed the exclusive influence which advertising has on consumers during those expensive and, for the consumer, annoying commercial breaks.
The results of this power evolution marks a new era in customer interaction. Individuals forge increasingly closer links between themselves, uniting to form serious purchasing groups with much greater purchasing power than ever before. In addition, the barriers between the brand and its consumers are collapsing to allow direct interaction with a company’s CEO or decision makers via the social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Youtube and the like.
Social media is an enabling platform witnessing rapid growth. In the past it took the radio nearly 40 years to gain 50 million listeners, television less than 15 years to gain 50 million viewers and the internet around 5 years to gain the same amount of visitors. In comparison, Facebook needed less than a year to gain 200 million registered members. Other platforms are also growing rapidly: Twitter has 90 million tweets per day and an increase of 250% in mobile application users and on Youtube 35 hours of video are uploaded every minute.
In times such as these, commercial companies try to lose that often patronizing attitude towards the customer and swap conventional, one-way communication for a mutual dialog, which respects and recognizes the quicker, more efficient and reliable counter line of communication from the consumer. Customers have become a force to be reckoned with. So, after following a monolog with a dialog, we now need to move to the next stage.
On the next level, companies need to start approaching consumers as business partners – a company intending to properly utilize buyer power should establish a partnership with its consumers.
As in any relationship with a business partner, your relationship with your consumer partner should be based on true mutual trust and transparency and not on empty slogans. Lost trust is a serious worry which can lead to the end of a partnership. This should be avoided at all costs
It is important to remember that a true partnership is one which creates a win-win situation for both parties.It is essential to prepare for a partnership by considering how you can meet the other partner’s needs. This may not be as difficult as you think. In most cases you’ll be surprised to learn how little consumers need in order to feel that they are benefiting from the partnership. You also need to think about the areas in which the help of the consumer can empower the company, as in the following examples
As shown before, a healthy partnership requires a specific approach by the brand company:
It is vital that companies pay close attention to what is said about their brands and understandthe following:
Listening needs to be an ongoing process. Companies must listen whatever the market climate – in times of crisis or in times of prosperity. Be part of the conversation and react when needed.
Know your partners
Segmentation is now based on behavior and needs, not on age and gender, as in the past.
This said, companies should still remain in charge of the partnership and not allow the partnership to take control of the company.
The fear of change
The kind of partnership in which the brand listens and involves its consumers in critical business decisions can cause some companies to worry about the potential risks of such great exposure to the public realm. Information which used to be treated as confidential could now come to the attention of the competition. In addition, giving consumers the opportunity to voice their opinion could attract unwanted criticism and even attempts to harm the brand. So what can be done?
Many international companies realize that the benefits are far greater than the potential damage and in fact have not encountered any subsequent idea theft. One great example is this of LEGO's "Design by me" campaign which encouraged customers to design LEGO toys that they would like to see in stores, using dedicated software. Tens of thousands of ideas suggested through the campaign were posted on the company website along with the designer's name and the idea he was trying to convey.
However, the main fear which remains is that consumers' vast and immediate strength fuels a fear of a rapid, uncontrolled spread of the crisis throughout the web. How can we best avoid or master such situations?
Be active – Nurture the relationship with your fans and fulfill their needs and you will increase the probability of them supporting you in times of crisis.
Act quickly – consumers expect their feedback to be met quickly. A lack of response or delays will be interpreted as arrogance or disrespect.
Be prepared – Complaints can be constructive and of help to your company. It is the way you deal with them and not the complaints themselves which decide the outcome of the situation.
React – Don't be afraid to react in case of an error. In most cases, the best reaction is to admit to the mistake and apologize. Follow this up by supplying consumers with all viable information and responding to any emerging questions.
Although this transformation in buyer-seller relationships may seem overwhelming, businesses need to put matters into perspective. At the end of the day, the virtual world is not the only force driving our physical lives and not every hype on the web is realized in real life.
However, while companies can still exist without partnering their consumers, now is a golden opportunity to start doing so. Like every other opportunity, it remains the responsibility of individual businesses to decide the extent to which they will exploit this chance to keep pace with the changes around us.
By Nitza Bartur Sasson,Senior Partner, GM Strategy practice, Tefen Israel
Adi Sheleg, Senior Consultant, Tefen Israel