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Josh Bernoff: How to move at the speed of the empowered customer

28th Oct 2010
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Josh Bernoff explains why the only way to support digitally empowered customers is to empower employees to solve their problems.

There’s been a lot of talk about the social empowered customer and the impact this is having on the traditional customer relationship. Forrester, for instance, estimates that in the UK alone every year, people now make 50 billion impressions on other individuals regarding products and services in social environments – about a quarter of the total number of online advertising impressions delivered.
What has been given considerably less consideration, however, are the implications of employing these same empowered individuals. Yes, just when you were getting your head around one issue, you realise that as a business you’re facing challenges on two fronts – external and internal.
However, tackling this topic in his new book, 'Empowered', Josh Bernoff (along with co-author Ted Schadler) makes an astonishing suggestion – that by supporting your empowered employees, you will ultimately support your empowered customers. In fact, says Bernoff, it is only by enabling your empowered employees that you can satisfy the modern customer.
"The universal nature of social communications has been supercharged by a few things," explains Bernoff, whose day job is senior vice president, idea development at Forrester. "The spread of smart mobile devices means that people now have access to those connections wherever they are, not just when they are at a computer. The availability of Cloud services can tell you in an instant what your house is worth or whether the restaurant you are about to go into is any good. And then video creates a new dimension. The combination of all of those technologies means that the consumer who wants satisfaction is now in a position to have a lot more power than they have ever had before."
But Bernoff is keen to emphasise that the influence of this isn’t only happening outside of the four walls of the business. "One of the things we found is that more than one in three employees are now using technology that is not sanctioned by their company," he says.
"They’re downloading applications, they’re logging into sites like LinkedIn or Facebook or Google Docs, they’re using their mobile phone for work even though it is not paid for by the company. This is an attempt, usually, to do their jobs well and companies can either try to block that activity or they can embrace it and say to the employees ‘if you can develop new ways to reach out to our customers then we’ll support that’. In the companies that we have seen that are successful, the only way that they can move at the speed of the empowered customer is to empower their own employees to come up with solutions for them."
An interesting case
Bernoff gives three examples of companies that have impressed him with their initiatives to address the empowered customer.
  • Auto Trader – created an iPhone app which can tell you the make, model and the price of used cars just from snapping a license plate photo. "An extremely innovative way to empower people with mobile phones," emphasises Bernoff.
  • Carphone Warehouse – which has been using Twitter and social media to transform customer service.
  • giffgaff – a mobile phone service that has no stores, sells no phones and has no call centre. How does it do that? "It has leveraged its own customers to solve the problems for other customers and that obviously is a very different way of thinking from what happens in most operators."
However, there is another example that deserves a special mention. "An interesting case is Dell," says Bernoff. "It started out with a bunch of social applications for customers, like IdeaStorm, where customers can suggest and vote on new products they should create, and DellOutlet which is their Twitter feed which sold over $7million worth of computers with specials and overstocks. But what Dell realised pretty early on was that their own employees could get the same sort of benefit from these kinds of applications.
"So you have Employee Storm now, which is the equivalent of IdeaStorm, only that it is ideas and new innovations from employees. And in addition to their support forums where customers help other customers, they also have internal forums where the support people share solutions that they have worked out for dealing with customers. So once you get into that frame of mind, that social is going to be helpful to your company, you recognise that the employees can get just as much benefit out of it as any work that you do with customers."
A headache for HEROs
However, getting into this new "frame of mind" isn’t necessarily straightforward for many firms. Having traditionally run their companies top-down, business leaders are finding the change in mindset to be something of a headache. "They feel they are in charge of certain things," explains Bernoff. "For example, the management feels that it is in charge of policy, strategy, product development and they also feel that they are in charge of their own brand. But in the end, the brand doesn’t belong to the company. It belongs to the customers. Because if you think your brand is about high quality products, and your customers think your brand is about saving money, they are right and you are wrong! And embracing this freedom for employees means the management has to recognise that they are not in charge of innovation and they are not the smartest people in the room."
In particular, 'Empowered' suggests that businesses need to aware of the existence of HEROs – highly empowered and resourceful operatives – a class of innovative employee that are trying to help and find solutions. But to enable HEROs to do this often means that policy and tradition require re-evaluation. Furthermore, businesses will also have to accept that they’re not going to get it right every time – mistakes are an inevitable risk!
"If a company puts in place 10 innovative new programmes, nine of them may be very successful and one of them may be a mess and a problem that has to be shut down. But in the end most CEOs would tell you that they would take the nine if they could deal with the one," continues Bernoff. "If you run your company in such a way as to try and avoid mistakes, you are unlikely to be successful."
"HEROs need to work with management. So management needs to support them - but that doesn’t mean that the management just lets people do whatever they want. Part of the job here is for the management to help clear obstacles away and in some cases to tell people that what they are doing is not in line with policy, that it has too many risks associated with it, or for other reasons that it is not really what they are looking for. So the management and also the IT department need to look at these projects and help work with the HEROs to make sure that they actually are going to contribute to the business."
Ultimately, however, Bernoff is optimistic that organisations will start to shift from merely talking about the advent of empowered individuals to actually supporting them - whether those individuals are customers or employees.
"Our thesis is that only an empowered worker can support an empowered customer," he concludes. "So if you believe this then you really need to change the way you manage your company so that these empowered workers can do what they’re thinking about doing. You need to look at ways to manage your company so that innovation from employees can be turned into successful outreach to customers and not just die amid all of the bureaucracy that most companies have."

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