Future of work: I visited the UK Amazon HQ a few years ago, and I observed a genuine and obsessive focus on customers.
Jeff Bezos stated that customer obsession “is the only long-term defensible competitive advantage”, and to ensure everyone remembers this there is an empty chair in every meeting, symbolising the presence of the customer (this really happens).
The impact of decisions on the customer is always considered, and if it does not improve customer experience, it won’t happen. This quasi-religious focus has certainly paid off; Jeff is the first individual to amass a personal fortune of over $100 billion (according to Bloomberg he’s currently worth about $130 billion).
Future of work: Heightened customer expectation
Amazon’s success has had a complex impact. Without mentioning the ethics of its approach to well being, or its ‘efficient’ attitude to tax, it must be stated that it has made life extremely difficult for competitors. Amazon’s customer can find virtually any product with great ease, buy it with one little swipe, and receive it the next day. The ubiquity of Amazon means that this has set an expectation that others find extremely difficult to match. Customers may pay a little more for a product rather than go through the rigmarole of entering credit card details or logging on to a PayPal account; additional steps referred to as ‘friction’. Amazon goes one step further than removing friction, often suggesting products based on the profile of the user.
Many sufficiently advanced organisations are engaging with technology to pre-empt customer’s specific needs, a strategy referred to by McKinsey (June 2020) as ‘white glove service’. Not limited to retail, this is the ability of laptops to pre-empt and fix issues before they arise, or Tesla cars to adapt their feel and performance to the style and preferences of the driver. Perhaps more important than the sophisticated technology that enables the ‘how’, is the mindset that drives it; a relentless desire to delight the customer, achieved with ever increasing levels of efficiency.
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Future of work: The inevitable extinction of traditional business?
The traditional bureaucratic organisation has, historically, had a different relationship with customers. Decisions are sometimes made to suit the organisation, and the impact on the customer is not always considered. The Agile revolution has begun to change this for many businesses as they have been forced to raise their game to keep pace with sharper new entrants, and many, such as HMV, Mothercare, and Debenhams have not fared so well.
Future of work: The Educational Institution
A very obvious relic of the industrial age is the typical UK University. In 2018, a YouGov poll showed that only 13% of students stated that their degree courses offer good value for money (62% were dissatisfied).
Despite rising tuition fees, and parental and graduate dissatisfaction with employment opportunities, many continue with the ‘take it or leave it’ approach to customer engagement. I recently completed a distance learning programme with a Russel Group university; it was disorganised, customer service was non-existent, and any problems encountered with technology or the platform were clearly stated as being the student’s responsibility to solve. In the modern age of customer obsession, this is nowhere near good enough, and I see that the University has since sacked the provider of the platform.
The industrial age approach is not restricted to Universities; The Spectator (27 June 2020) notes rising interest and applications to independent schools as exasperated parents have lost confidence in state schools during the Corona Virus, citing unwillingness to provide online lessons, feedback, or sufficient engagement with children. My children’s school won’t provide online teaching because some of the teachers feel uncomfortable speaking to web cameras; I sympathise as I do too, but the needs and interest of children must surely outweigh this. For many children, short term damage has already been done, but a greater migration to private education will only increase future social and economic divides.
Future of work: What needs to change?
There is chasm opening between the organisations that keep pace with customer expectations, and those that don’t. The most advanced, robust, data driven approaches to pre-empting customer needs are undoubtedly expensive and difficult to implement, requiring high levels of agility and cross-functional interconnection to work well. For small organisations, or those operating with limited budgets, the magnitude of engaging with this can be overwhelming. However, perhaps more important is the mindset of putting the customer at the centre of the decision-making process.
By continuously asking what the outcome will be for the customer, organisations can create the unity of purpose so apparent in the highest performing organisations. Work that has no impact on the customer can be stopped, and resources redirected to where they will have a significant impact. Investment in technology, data, and the staff who can use it will undoubtedly create opportunities to scale up and delight customers globally, yet perhaps the best investment an organisation can make is an empty chair in the meeting room.
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Associate tutor of In Professional Development