By Sheridan Orr
Forrester just released a study that shows customers feel more empowered than ever. As a result, customers have raised their expectations of the brand and the experience.
Given the findings of this study, I thought it might be interesting to look at the pivotal moments that created the modern, connected and empowered customer.
In the late 1800s, shopping consisted of trekking to a crowded market and heavy engagement with shopkeepers. Consumers had an intimate relationship with their local vendors. In 1880, that changed with the first post card vending machine developed by Richard Carlisle, an English professor. Later, Jeff Bezos would follow in Carlisle's footsteps to create another creative way to sell books, Amazon.
SHOPPING FROM HOME
A railroad operator received a large shipment of watches from a jeweler because the original client refused them. Due to the Homestead Act and westward expansion, the population was spreading rapidly to remote areas. Richard Sears used the railroad operators to sell his watches to these people. Soon the Sears Catalogue and a new business model were born. Now homesteaders had the same access to sewing machines and other household items as their city cousins.
While the Sears catalogue remained wildly popular, passengers left the rails for cars. Gas stations now had lines of cars waiting for attendants. Therefore, Bernard Roth became a self-service revolutionary with the invention of the self-service gas pump.
CUSTOMER LOYALTY AND PERSONALIZED SERVICE
Shopkeepers were looking for a way to improve customer loyalty and John Biggins was looking for a way to make his bank the preferred institution for merchants. In 1946, he found a way to do both by inventing the credit card. Shops issued these early credit cards to their customers. The customer would charge items, Biggins' bank would then pay the merchant and the customer would pay Biggins. This allowed customers to easily purchase items and became effectively the first loyalty program. Shopkeepers used these cards to provide personalized service to their loyal customers.
FLEXIBILITY OF PRODUCT OFFERING
While Biggins was creating the credit card in Brooklyn, a Las Vegas tradition was being conceived. Herb MacDonald was the publicist for the El Rancho Casino in Vegas. Late one night, he asked the chef to create just a plate of cold meats and cheeses. As hungry gamblers began to graze, the all-you-can-eat buffet was born. For $1 gamblers could get the Buckaroo Buffet. Now customers could get exactly what they wanted and in whatever quantities. Moreover, they didn't have to wait for a server when Lady Luck was calling.
24 X 7 ACCESS AND A NEW DEFINITION OF CUSTOMER SERVICE
When the first ATMs were launched there was great fear that customers would miss the interaction with the teller. However, the installations by Barclays bank in 1967 became a huge success. It showed that customers were willing to give up human interaction for convenience and access.
Now that we have so much control over our travel options it is hard to see how revolutionary it was when Southwest allowed passengers to choose their own seats in 1971.
FOUNDATIONS OF E-COMMERCE
In 1977, HP used the latest technology to create a desktop computer that was aimed at the non-technical user. This coupled with changes in software made technology more accessible for the masses. Now that everyone had these computers, the Internet allowed them to connect to one another and to content.
IN DEPTH PRODUCT INFORMATION + VIRAL SHOPPING
What Sears did for print, QVC did for television. Shoppers now had access to the products as well as the "product maven" no matter where they lived. Now housewives in remote locations could have access to the same products that were available in metropolitan areas. Moreover, they had access 24x7. The housewife in Topeka, who had just purchased the Hoover vacuum, was then invited to call into the show to give a testimonial about her purchase—thereby creating the first viral shopping experience.
BIRTH OF MOBILITY
The first smartphone created by Bellsouth introduced a new device. It could replace your watch, telephone, address book and scratch paper. As these phones grew smarter, people began to think about what else they could do with them.
A NEW WAY OF SHOPPING
Like its Victorian predecessor, Amazon brought books to readers in a new way. Amazon's system of reviews and guided selling revolutionized the e-commerce experience. Now the customer had all the benefits of product recommendations from their favorite bookseller with the convenience of shopping at home.
In 1995, eBay was formed. Consumers no longer had to comb through attics or yard sales to find that a teacup to complete Grandmother's china set. No matter what you wanted you could find it on eBay. It also was the foundation of peer-to-peer interaction.
When AOL launched AIM, it was a novelty to be able to chat with your friend in computer class without anyone knowing. Soon, it became the foundation for how quickly people, including customers, expected responses.
Napster created a community of users who were willing to share in order to get a greater benefit. Moreover, it established that customers were willing to take matters into their own hands if business models were antiquated. The record companies realized too late that their packaging and pricing no longer worked for customers.
Alaska Airlines was the first to allow customers to check in online. That greatly reduced passenger wait times. The self-service kiosk followed and travel was forever altered. Travelers were so delighted with self-service that they began to demand more. Retailers and hoteliers scrambled to figure out how to emulate the results with kiosks.
A NEW ANIMAL
In 2000, Microsoft invented the tablet. It would take several incarnations for technology companies to make it relevant. However, the iPad took this "new animal" to a place that got customers hooked. Soon retailers began to scramble to figure out how to make this a platform for engaging with their customers.
FLEXIBLE PRODUCT PACKAGING
The Napster revolution left record companies struggling to survive. They had expected that customers would continue to tolerate the terms dictated to them. Steve Jobs stepped in and created a business model that worked for both the record companies and the consumer. Now consumers could buy exactly what they wanted and package that content in a way that suited their needs.
CONVENIENCE ON THEIR OWN TERMS
redbox doesn't seem that revolutionary when you think of it as just a DVD kiosk. However, if you were ever hit with $50 fines and banned from renting videos from Blockbuster just because your roommate spilled wine on The Taming of the Shrew, then you might fully grasp the impact of this model. Customers would no longer tolerate Draconian terms when they could just go to the kiosk. If consumers kept the video, then their credit card would be charged — no fines, no late fees, no bans. Now consumers could get DVDs on their terms.
PAY ANYWHERE, ANYWAY
The latest innovation to empower the customer is mobile payments. With companies like Square and Google Wallet, it becomes even more seamless to use mobile to buy products and services.
As we are on the cusp of the m-commerce revolution, you can understand the findings of the Forrester study. Customers expect brands to be: credible, leaders, relevant, unique, trusted, remarkable, unmistakeable and essential. Therefore, that's what they expect from their customer experience. As social media continues to grow, brands need to consider how to create experiences that further empower the customer.
Sheridan Orr is VP Global Sales and Marketing Director for Meridian Zero Degrees