by Julia Ahlfeldt (@JuliaAhlfeldt) The business climate is changing fast, regardless of what sceptics say. To adapt to the new environment, businesses across all sectors need to understand the magnitude of the shifts taking place. They may seem small and incremental right now, but would you know when a critical mass is reached? And would you know well enough in advance to plan for it?

Just think of climate change as an analogy and the City of Cape Town as an example of how catastrophic the results can be when you don’t pay attention to the small changes, or wait and act when it’s already too late.

Major shift

The major shift every business leader needs to appreciate is the ever-increasing power of the customer. In an age of social media, ecommerce, and accelerating AI that has the capacity to understand each customer’s individual preferences and values, focusing on the customer is crucial.

Often when I say this, people will nod and say, “Yes, we know, the customer is king, but it’s always been that way.” To some extent that’s true, but consumers have never had the ability to broadcast their feedback or change behavior as quickly and as effortlessly as they do now. New technology-based products are springing up daily, and local businesses may find themselves having to compete with global companies. The developers of Airbnb, for example, knew nothing about the travel and tourism landscape in South Africa but they built a product centred on universal customer needs, and local travel/tourism industries across the globe have been scrambling to adapt.

As the old saying goes, “what got you here won’t take you there.” Just because you have the customers now, doesn’t mean you always will — just ask Kodak. South African businesses are actually lucky on this front as we can get a glimpse of what the future holds by looking to developed markets.

Four elements

My belief is that the best way to future-proof your business is to prioritise your focus on the customer at every level of your business. They are your greatest asset, they are your best ambassadors, and they offer your biggest opportunities.

These are the four elements of CX* customers say matter most:

  1. Delivering on your brand promise

Clarifying your brand promise and equipping the business to live up to it every time your customer interacts with your brand is the “new normal”. Any business that fails on this front will face trial-by-social-media and lose out on the key currency of the future: trust and loyalty. Just last month, millions of people across SA knew within hours to throw out Enterprise Foods, thanks to the power of information sharing via social media. Given the severity of the brand’s failure, it’s going to be a long, and perhaps impossible, journey to regain trust.

  1. Resolution of issues

Customers have always wanted issues resolved quickly and completely, so it’s surprising how many companies fail here. But, in the age of social media, ignoring your customers’ complaints and hoping they’ll go away is no longer an option. Invest in the staff, systems and procedures that will help you effectively resolve customer issues, rather than doling out for spin doctors and social media strategists once customer outrage has already gone viral and damaged your brand.

  1. Ease of use

Your customers have embraced technology; it’s time your business does, too. Are there ways you may enhance and simplify your processes to reduce painpoints for customers?

I had a recent interaction with my bank, where I needed to submit all my FICA documentation to update my details and get a new cheque card. This is a schlep in itself but, ok, it’s a regulatory requirement, so I understand it needs to happen. A few weeks later, the credit card department at the same bank requested that I resubmit all of the same documents — because the cheque account department has nothing to do with the credit card department.

From my view, as a customer, I’m dealing with one bank, one brand, and it shouldn’t be my problem that there’s an inefficient silo structure in place. This kind of interaction is a weakness that may cost you customers when a simpler, easier alternative becomes available.

  1. A value proposition they believe in

In a world of overwhelming choice and options, customers are drawn to products and services that align with their unique values and preferences. Delivering on brand promises, resolving issues and making experiences easy are the “basics” of good customer experience. These factors are the foundation of customer loyalty but, beyond this, brands must also offer compelling experiences that differentiate them from the rest. This is where the magic happens, and organisations can create branded experiences and foster emotional connections that hopefully evolve into lasting relationships.

Takealot vs. Yuppiechef is one of my favourite examples of this. Both brands have done a good job of delivering on the basics, but they have effectively differentiated their offering: Takealot emphasises a value proposition of price and broad product assortment. Yuppiechef offers a value proposition that is about curated products, expert advice and highly personalised service.

*I developed the Elements of CX after analysing recurring trends among customer wants/needs as I worked with various clients to evaluate their customer’s feedback. These elements are applicable across industries and in a B2B or B2C context.


Julia AhlfeldtJulia Ahlfeldt (@JuliaAhlfeldt) is a certified customer experience professional (CCXP). She consults to blue-chips and multinationals, working with Virgin Active, Momentum, Absa, and American Express, Ross Stores and JP Morgan Chase in the US, among others. By tapping into her vast local and international network, she produces a monthly podcast, Decoding the Customer, interviewing leaders on CX trends and adoption (including Michelle Beetar). She contributes the new column, “The CX-Files”, to MarkLives.

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