Crown wallpaper

Unlike many of the clichés that clog up business discussions in the English speaking world: “low hanging fruit”, “running it up the flagpole” or the perennial bugbear that is “blue sky thinking”, the old maxim that the “customer is king” retains more than a kernel of meaning.

In fact, I would suggest, as we stand on the threshold of 2016, that customer service has become one of the most significant and efficient means of differentiating a successful business from its competitors. Where once the quality of your product, its perceived value or desirability were likely to be the definitive factors that made your business distinct from its market rivals, now outstanding service has to be seen as an equally potent force.

This is not just hunch; there have been recent studies that support this notion: Customer Intelligence predicts that customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator by 2020. Another piece of future speculation by research company Gartner notes the likely consequences of this shift by stating that by 2017, 50 percent of product investment projects are going to be redirected into customer service innovations.

So what can you do in 2016 (and beyond!) to ensure that your levels of customer service and satisfaction are impressive enough to ensure that your business thrives? Firstly, let’s accept the fact that your customers are more empowered than ever before and I’m not suggesting that this is a bad thing. It’s important that business owners realise that with the 2015 Consumer Rights Act in one pocket and a Twitter account in the other, your customers know both their rights and are happy to tell the world when something has gone wrong in their interaction with your business.

A good start therefore is to invest heavily (if you can) in your customer service team. Treat them well, incentivise them, give them chocolate and free massages if you have to, but most importantly of all, give them the right tools to allow them to do their job at the highest level. There’s a temptation to throw money at your IT solutions when upgrading them in the expectation that bigger, or more expensive, should be therefore better. However, I’m certain that the CEOs of some high-profile UK firms who’ve suffered significant (and toxic in terms of PR) data breaches this year will suggest that this is not always the case.

It won’t come as surprise to you if you’ve read my job title at the top of this page, but I would recommend that companies make 2016 the year of a well-designed and tightly-integrated CRM system. The cyberattacks seen in 2015 have raised real online privacy concerns. As a result, and here comes the techy bit, more companies will opt to implement CRM with cloud agility. What does this mean? Simply that, businesses can maintain security and control of customer data, choose the best cloud model (public, private or hybrid cloud deployment) – as well as on-premise - for their business, and ensures they comply with all necessary security regulations.

Your customer service team need not be tied to a particular office (although the chocolates and masseuse you’ve provided may mean that they’d prefer to stay) if they are equipped with a mobile version of your CRM solution. In the past, mobile solutions in this space have fallen way short of acceptable and in some cases were frustratingly arcane to use. However, the 2016 mobile CRM experience is lot more pleasurable to use with sleek interfaces that incorporate social and mobile data. This equips your employees with what they need to support, tend and grow excellent relationships with their customers.

Another advance in CRM technology that will really excel in 2016 is predictive analytics. Through these tools customer service teams, marketers and sales representatives will be able to accurately forecast the effectiveness of their activity and personalise their support accordingly. The customer’s journey through the different stages of purchasing will therefore be made significantly smoother and, if used effectively, could well convert a customer from someone who just buys from you into an advocate of your business and brand. Once you’ve found customers who’ve reached this stage, with the help of a modern CRM solution, you simply need to ensure they are nurtured.

Of course any customer service strategy should be a bespoke blend of complementary services and company policies appropriate to your target market. However with a solid, flexible, secure CRM solution at its nexus, a business is taking the first steps towards ensuring that excellence in its customer relationships becomes not just an aspirational notion scribbled on an internal document but the feature that differentiates it from its less successful competitors.

And in a world where the customer is not just king but also queen, president, emperor and sultan, this is not only desirable but essential.

By Henning Ogberg, SugarCRM Senior Vice President EMEA