O2's Nina Bibby on the year ahead in marketing

Brands mustn't take their eye off the customer at a time when it is easy to be blinded by the glare of shiny new tech products, Nina Bibby writes.

Nina Bibby: 2016 should be the year we turn a tech story into a love story
Nina Bibby: 2016 should be the year we turn a tech story into a love story

2015 was the year we became a smartphone society. Mobile, as the fastest-growing digital interface, is now firmly embedded in how we work, how we live, how we communicate. While this is hugely exciting, it’s important that we don’t get distracted by the myriad of possibilities for digital technology. That’s why I hope that 2016 will be the year we turn a tech story into a love story, maintaining a ruthless focus on what we’re really about: our customers. 

Working alongside a multitude of self-confessed tech geeks at O2, I see the new possibilities digital brings on almost a daily basis. For us marketers, digital has transformed our craft. From personalisation to programmatic and from video to social media, we are experimenting with and perfecting an ever-growing array of tools to connect with customers. 

But we have to be vigilant to ensure that we’re not pushing innovation for innovation’s sake. Our customers should always be centre stage and our priority has to be providing them with what they want. So while we should absolutely harness technology to evolve our products and services, our customers’ needs must always remain front of mind. 

Ultimately, digital magnifies our ability to do what we should always be doing for customers: creating value for them in order to create value from them. In 2016, customers will increasingly demand that this fair value exchange is delivered. I believe there are four fundamental aspects of customer centricity that will be increasingly important this year:

1. Value all customers equally
For customers, digital is democratising services across the board. Want a taxi? You don’t need a corporate expense account or an expensive local driver, just a debit card and a smartphone. Want a personal shopper? You don’t need to spend a fortune at an exclusive department store, just sign up for a shopping app that will curate your personal style for you. 

Digital technology has made so many products and services accessible to all, but that means we have a duty to value all customers equally. 

2. Treat customers like they’re in a hotel, not a prison
Digital gives us all more flexibility and more freedom. With a swipe of the finger, we can change our energy provider, return a pair of shoes or satisfy a late-night craving for pizza. As a result, customers are expecting more from the brands they interact with, and it’s up to us to deliver.

This provides a crucial need for brands to act like a hotel, not a prison. Customers don’t want to feel locked in. At O2, we give them the freedom to leave. In return, they trust us and stay. 

But a key priority of any hotel is hospitality, and that means a human touch is vital, especially in a world where the majority of communication takes place via the device in our hand. Even Uber, which has enjoyed unprecedented success as an app, relies on the interaction of its drivers to complete the experience. 

Human hospitality can take many guises, not all of them face-to-face: a shared joke with a customer over social media, web-chat interaction to answer a technical query, standout customer service over the phone and front-line staff in stores can all provide a personal touch. Customers who have interacted with one of our O2 Gurus are much more likely to recommend us, trust us and buy products or services from us. I predict that, in 2016, the value placed on this service interaction will regain importance. Man cannot live with machines alone. 

3. Harness partnerships to play a bigger role in customers’ lives
Digital breaks down boundaries – not just between people but brands too. It fosters convergence, forging unlikely partnerships across sectors to better meet customers’ needs. The new start-up OakLabs, for instance, partnered with Ralph Lauren in the US last year to launch high-tech interactive fitting rooms, while Google partnered with the British Museum to develop a set of digital tools to enable people to explore its collections online. We should all feel emboldened to seek out partnerships that can increase value for customers. For me, this is how an agile, dynamic organisation should behave. Those partnerships may be about content or capability development or enhanced products or services. 

4. Strive to make a difference to people and society
Finally, customer centricity means striving to make a difference, both to individuals and to society as a whole. In the digital economy, what we do as companies is transparent. We can’t just do business, we have to do good business. That means we must be authentic in our ambition to treat people well – colleagues and customers alike – because, when our people love what they do, they’ll love doing it for our customers. In a service business, customers will only be treated as well as colleagues themselves feel treated. And customers will know if a company’s stated values and ideals are not reflected in how they treat their people or their impact on society at large. 

Ultimately, customer centricity has to start at home. For us, that means instilling an internal culture founded on the belief that the possibilities of technology should be open to all. And by delivering the benefits of digital to other businesses and to our customers, we can start trying to make a difference to the wider economy and to society as a whole.

So, in 2016, what I hope to see is a resurgence of the basics of customer centricity, facilitated but not overshadowed by digital. I am as excited as anyone about what data, technology and new digital formats can do to transform our relationships with our customers. But if core customer needs don’t remain front and centre in everything we do, they won’t benefit, and neither will we. This is what customer centricity really means: that we innovate around the customer, deliver to their needs and in return deliver the commensurate value to shareholders and other stakeholders. 

Let’s ensure as marketers that, by putting customers at the centre of our businesses, 2016 will be about our love for the customer, not only about our love for the latest tech. 

Nina Bibby is the marketing and consumer director at O2 UK

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