Altimeter's Brian Solis: 'It's the Customer Experience, Stupid'

So you've got a Facebook page, a LinkedIn account, an Instagram stream and even a dedicated Social Media Manager. Time to check "social media" off the to-do list, right? You've only started.
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So you've got a Facebook page, a LinkedIn account, an Instagram stream and even a dedicated Social Media Manager. Time to check "social media" off the to-do list, right?

You've only started. Few companies have even begun to understand the massive disruption that unfettered customer conversations have unleashed upon them. They've thrown responsibility into a marketing bucket where it doesn't even belong and applied largely useless metrics like followers and shares to something that will reshape their businesses. When you speak to Brian Solis, the Altimeter Group principal analyst and author of What's the Future of Business? (WTF for short), among other books, you can't help but agree that we're still far from understanding how much our world has changed.

I caught up with Solis last week as he prepared for the Pivot Conference he'll host in New York in October 15-16. Not surprisingly, he's got a lot more on his mind than social media. Solis believes customer experience is the only sustainable advantage in a world in which customers call all the shots. He believes few CEOs know what's about to hit them.

"They're arrogant because they're profitable today and their forecasts say profitability will continue," he told me. But just ask leaders of Best Buy, Borders, The Washington Post Company and Blockbuster where market leadership got them. The pace of disruption is only going to increase, and companies that don't understand and integrate customer experience from soup to nuts are going to be fall victim to Digital Darwinism, Solis believes.

The new media world presents an unprecedented opportunity to improve customer engagement by iterating on continuous feedback in social channels. It's Net Promoter Score on steroids. Unfortunately, most companies are so siloed that they fail to see the gaps in the experience they deliver.

It's a mistake to put the marketing department solely in charge of Facebook or any other customer-facing channels in a new social and mobile world. Customers go there to ask questions, seek direction and lodge complaints. It's not just about marketing. As a result, request are frequently met by a weak "I'll have someone get back to you on that," or even worse, silence. Customer service organizations should figure prominently in a company's social media activities, but they're in constant reaction mode and measured by metrics like the volume of calls processed rather than quality of customer experience.

The Economist Intelligence Unit earlier this year surveyed 329 North American business executives and reported that 60% of them invest primary social media responsibility in marketing and sales. Only 17% have distributed ownership throughout the organization and just 6% have given customer service a lead role. "Owning the customer isn't meaningful unless you understand the experience the customer has hopping from one stage to another," Solis said.

But what about businesses that can't enchant customers? "It's pretty hard to do that if you make hammers," I said. Solis was unfazed. "I can't think of any business that can't surprise and delight customers," he said. "The people at Colgate don't think they're in the toothpaste business. They're in the confidence business." So the higher calling for a company that makes hammers may be to help customers build wonderful things. If we've learned anything from Apple Computer, it's that having a mission is essential. "Companies with a higher purpose are more profitable than those that just think about the bottom line," he said.

That's what companies don't understand about social media. They think it's about delivering a marketing message when it's really about engaging the customer holistically. As a new breed of buyers enters the market, experience will be about more than just entertainment, marketing, or creative campaigns.

Eyeglass maker Warby Parker is one example of that. Part of its corporate mission is to improve the vision of people in impoverished countries. That bigger mission resonates with the young customers they court. A Deloitte study of millennials found that 92% believe business success should be measured by something more than profits. Companies like Patagonia, Sanuk, Kiva and Coursera, all of which are popular with young consumers, make philanthropy a part of their core mission.

"To the new consumer who's driving the shared economy, brands don't stand for the same things as they did for their parents," Solis said. "Millennials don't want to pay $500 for a hotel room or own a car. They don't want to own 'stuff' in general."

That's why the hospitality industry is terrified of Airbnb and taxi companies are organizing to regulate the Uber ride-sharing network. Protests will ultimately fail, though. Customers now do the talking. In the new connected economy, Solis said, the customer attitude is "I don't go out to the world. I make the world come to me."

Paul Gillin is a writer, speaker and online marketing consultant. For nearly 20 years he was a print journalist, but he fell in love with the Internet and made the switch to all-digital in 1999. Gillin's latest book is Attack of the Customers.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Pivot Conference. This event (held in New York on October 15-16, 2013), brings together more than 400 Social Business Leaders from major companies at the forefront of change. For more information about Pivot, click here.

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