Getting inside the mind of the customer

What do customers really want? A wave of emerging technologies is finally providing an answer, Microsoft’s Steve Bunyan tells IT Contributing Editor Malcolm Wheatley.

Microsoft’s Steve Bunyan
Microsoft’s Steve Bunyan

It’s almost exactly a hundred years since American retail magnate John Wanamaker pithily observed that half the money that he spent on advertising was wasted – the trouble being that he didn’t know which half.

Unfortunately, despite all the marketing advances that have taken place since then, many businesses still struggle to understand their customers’ underlying needs and requirements.

But could that be about to change? Quite possibly so, it seems – because that’s the very prospect held out by a wave of new and fast-developing technologies sweeping across the world of business today, says Steve Bunyan, market development manager for manufacturing industry at Microsoft.

The technologies in question? A familiar list of contemporary buzzwords, in short: CRM; ERP; Big Data; social listening; predictive analytics; and the Internet of Things. But take a close look at each, explains Bunyan, and you’ll see a common underlying thread.

In short, he points out, they each provide a way of getting closer than ever to what customers – and prospective customers – are really thinking. And when powerfully combined together, those insights also combine together to build up a picture of customer requirements and customer buying intentions that is of unprecedented clarity.

“Never before have there been so many ways in which customers can share their views and opinions,” he notes. “From social channels to the Internet of Things, and CRM systems to the latest generation of dynamic marketing systems, customers are only too keen to let businesses know what they want.”

Moreover, he adds, social channels can not only help manufacturers to understand customer perceptions of their products, but also provide insights into how the market views their competitors’ products.

So what can businesses do with such insights? Build better products, for one thing, says Bunyan.

“Whether it’s through the Internet of Things, social channels, ERP, or CRM, there’s a wealth of information out there about product performance, product usage, and customer requirements,” he points out. “There’s an obvious benefit in being able to use this to drive new product development processes, or offer new service propositions such as servitization.”

Better demand forecasting, too, is an equally obvious benefit, whether the insights come from clues in social channels and CRM systems about customer buying intentions, or devices at customer premises reporting via the Internet of Things that a replenishment trigger has been reached.

In short, stresses Bunyan, utilising these new sources of information—and acting upon them—allows organisations to develop and market precisely-targeted products and services to meet customer needs as never before.

Moreover, the information that is gathered isn’t solely for the sales and new product development functions, but can better inform business processes functions right across the organisation – the supply chain, warehousing and transportation activity, and many other aspects of the organisation.

But the key, insists Bunyan, is to look beyond the individual technologies, and think in terms of the end objective now – acquiring that better insight into what customers actually want.

“Stop thinking about buzzwords, and focus on where you want to be, understand what ’good’ looks like for your customers, and act upon it,” he sums up.