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Products and processes have always been a priority – that’s understandable. Change has been continuous: manufacturers have been on a journey that has taken them from the sweat of physical production towards automation and robotic assembly. Now a connected future beckons, with the dizzying potential of sensor data and Internet of Things ‘smart’ products. Despite economic uncertainty, it’s generating exciting new digital services and direct-to-customer concepts. 

Customers are excited about the evolution of connected products – and it’s their needs and rapidly-changing behaviours which are driving much innovation.

That ought to mean they are more central to manufacturers’ thinking than ever. Yet research highlighted in The Manufacturer suggests small and medium-sized UK manufacturers are finding it increasingly tough to design products for customers.

Perhaps that’s due to difficulties with innovation, but a worrying 77% also don’t consider improving customer satisfaction as a key business challenge. Customer needs may be falling down the priority list.  

If manufacturers are to secure their future, what must they do? In the first of a series of blogs I take a look at the overarching changes that are going to drive manufacturers to adapt and alter their perspective in 2017 and beyond.  

The changing customer

Businesses are already realising that customers, both business and consumer, are becoming trickier to attract, influence and retain. What underlies this?

  • The purchasing journey is becoming complex, as empowered buyers take more time to research and decide. Constantly connected to colleagues and cohorts, today’s buyers validate views, invite opinions, and share thoughts. Bombarded by marketing information, they are filtering out noise, and focusing only on relevance.
  • The purchasing journey is now fully multi-channel, as buyers explore and compare online, on mobile, in stores, at home and work. Smart companies work to engage them earlier, create seamless experiences and build enduring relationships. 
  • Personalised experiences are creating better customer connections. Customers are responding to one-to-one treatment that goes beyond product customisation and spans their entire experience. Bespoke manufacturing is common at an industrial level, but personalisation must go further. Customisation via product options has long been a part of luxury car marketing, but Jaguar Land Rover has put personalisation at the heart of sales at its Westfield store. It embraced the multi-channel purchasing journey, enabling the purchasing process to be continued and concluded online.
  • Customers increasingly seek outcomes and experiences, not just products and features. A fridge is more than a white goods purchase – it means chilled, fresh food. They want a brighter office, not lightbulbs, and a cosy bedroom instead of a boiler. They are warming to brands that immerse them in such lovely expectations and experiences. 

The implications may seem more relevant to retailers – but they aren’t. Understanding customer motivations and values can inform every aspect of sales and marketing, inform product development and spark manufacturing innovation – and are certainly fundamental to successful D2C services. 

If customers are so central, where do you start? 

To adapt to an increasingly connected, customer-centric world, manufacturers must recognise:

1. Customer visibility and understanding have become critical

Customers are always seeking a solution to a need – so to develop and sell well means understanding those needs. To enable value for someone, you must know what value means to them, understand their motivations, and how they identify their needs. 

Unfortunately some manufacturers have no direct customer relationships, if customers buy via channels. Even those which sell directly can hold customer data in isolation from other business areas. IT systems usually become complex over time with data spread across different databases, and production and warehousing systems never designed to interact with back office software. It is tough to see customers clearly, make that knowledge accessible, or build on it to drive better engagement.  

Connecting all the information up, internally or in collaboration with partners, is a business priority for manufacturers who want to sell more directly, or engage more directly, with their customers. It requires flexible systems of engagement to complement your systems of record and functional IT, that enable you to engage customers on the right channels, at the right times, and in the right way to gain their attention. 

2. Connected customers need great experiences

Improving the overall customer experience can be seen as the retailer’s domain – but the benefits that will explode from IoT-connected products will form a fundamental part of the customer’s experience. Putting customer experience and service at the forefront of your thinking should become the manufacturer’s responsibility too – even if service is devolved to others.

“A consistent focus on customer service is a crucial ingredient for sustainable performance, especially in challenging times” insists the Institute of Customer Service. So, when a customer has a problem, even if a partner manages support, you need to see and be totally confident in the quality of service.

Each customer experience influences not only their future decisions but those of others, as customers now share experiences freely – especially bad ones.

Creating seamless, valuable, enjoyable experiences and service excellence for customers, whether they deal with you or partners, is a vital ingredient of success in a competitive world. It means creating transparent platforms which allow you and partners to deliver experiences collaboratively. 

Securing your future

UK manufacturers can secure their future by delivering products customers want and delighting them constantly. Their future rests on redefining the goal of manufacturing as customer success, not product sales – something Forbes cited as a top ten customer service trend for 2017.

Connected products, supported by positive, proactive customer service, will require systems that simplify a confusing jumble of data. Data will play a new role: a single view of information that is available to all employees will enhance the customer experience, as well as enable you to plan differently and innovate around the customers. It requires seamless ways to manage customer interaction and engagement, and the tools to access and analyse business and customer data to drive smart decisions.  

The manufacturing sector is going to change rapidly in the next few years. For some this will present the opportunity to innovate and create new value – but, for those who fail to adapt or recognise the fundamental changes, it can present risk. Taking a whole-company approach to create customer centricity means connecting employees to each other, as well as to customers, linking back and front offices, and eliminating data silos. It should embrace your complex partner ecosystem too, with platforms that enable collaboration for the purposes of delivering amazing customer service and experiences. 

Adapting for the future of manufacturing is about creating agility and insight to drive success for everyone – and Salesforce has been enabling customer success since its inception. We have already helped thousands of companies to see and understand their own customers better, to create customer success. 

A great place for manufacturers to begin their transformation is with their sales organisation. Download our e-book to read more about how Salesforce solutions can help manufacturing companies to differentiate and assist their front line sales teams compete in this new landscape.