Ronald Teijken regional leader, Smarter Commerce at IBM, responds to the article Service culture is not enough, published in TM, Jan 2012, with some thoughts on the role to be played by social media technologies in augmenting and altering traditional approaches to service offerings.
Manufacturing companies around the world have long understood the value of maintaining an ongoing relationship with their customers through the provision of after-sales service – predominantly, this has meant maintenance contracts and training based on the products that the manufacturer has sold. There is clearly value in this approach, but it is inevitably product-centric and restricts the type of relationship that can be developed with the customer.
However, the rise of the internet and social networking in particular means that it is now possible for manufacturers to move beyond simply delivering a ‘service culture’ to customers and instead develop a ‘relationship culture’, where communications are two-way and genuinely interactive.
While retailers have traditionally owned the sales and marketing process of the commerce cycle, and thus owned the relationship with the end user, social networking tools can empower manufacturers by giving them direct access to customers and vice versa.
By deepening customer relationships through interactive online channels, manufacturers can both drive advocacy among customers and increase sales by engaging directly with the people buying products. Product development can also benefit tremendously. Whereas R&D has often been conducted by specialist teams in isolated knowledge silos, with ideas only market-tested months into development, using social networks to build closer relationships with customers can generate ideas and create market-ready products faster and more efficiently.
Social networking can help manufacturers to radically change their customer relationships. For example, creating online forums around products where users can discuss service issues and solutions can also create opportunities for customers to be made aware of other relevant products, boosting potential sales.
Using forums to establish what faults customers are experiencing enables servicing teams to quickly respond to their problems, either with guidance or via repair and replacement facilities. This also helps teams to spot trends where for example, a particular system is prone to a fault. Such an issue might indicate a design flaw and this can then be passed back through the system to be reengineered as appropriate.
“The rise of the internet and social networking in particular means that it is now possible for manufacturers to move beyond simply delivering a ‘service culture’ to customers and instead develop a ‘relationship culture’” – Ronald Teijken
By creating a social networking environment where an increasing amount of new business comes in from the web, salesmen can be freed from pushing products to customers and instead become ‘feedback nodes’. Manufacturers may also want to position themselves as ‘one-stop-shops’, making available to customers a range of equipment solutions from across the supply chain.
Building a close rapport with suppliers is crucial for such an engineering-retail business to succeed, and again this is an area where a strong social networking presence can help enormously to nurture these relationships.
So while after-sales servicing is still an important way for manufacturers to keep in contact with its customers, it is not the whole story. To establish mutually beneficial relationships with end users, companies would be well advised to combine a servitisation culture with the more interactive approach that social networking enables.