The typewriter was once the bedrock for word processing. It was a medium to convey our thoughts. It wasn’t an easy mechanism that allowed the seamless flow of ideas from our minds to a piece of paper. Before the electric typewriter, those who lived it remember the manual return handle and the awkward raised keys that left ample room between them to let the fingers easily slip between the keys. It was clunky and it was a burden but that’s all we had. The advent of technology has removed the burden and made it easier for us to have a better experience recording our thoughts and ideas. We’ve progressed beyond typing out our thoughts. Systems now exist to help with the human conceptual and ideation process.

Over the course of the last 15 years, looking back I realized the digital transformation that most companies, especially business to business (b2b) were undergoing. I have participated and have been a witness to this transformation when it comes to increasing scale with automation. The pursuit of greater of productivity, efficiency and effectiveness gave birth to incredible practices, particularly with the evolution sales and marketing automation. This gave rise to understanding and optimizing workflow, email nurturing and the rise of the call to action.

Today mainstream positions this as the customer journey, and strives towards developing a data driven or customer centric culture. Artificial intelligence (AI), internet bots, machine learning are paving the way to assist businesses in delivering goods automatically and selling socially, engaging, and ampliyfing etc.

Every generation’s breakthroughs (a.k.a disruption, innovation, evolution)are proven false by the next generation’s technology.

We all have played a role in rise of the technology-driven organization, either as a vendor, client, manager, observer, analyst or project leader etc. I have participated both as a vendor and client in the rise of technology-driven organizations, and I will tell you the growth has been rapid.

I have had the honor of working with a SaaS company that was doing everything right. They were growing. They attracted talent, and they seemed to be able to retain their customers. Their cost of acquisition over the past 10 years was decreasing, essentially relying on authentic word of mouth. This was tremendously valuable to their bottom-line.

When asked how they knew what to do next, the response was, “We talk to almost all our customers!” These conversations also gave the client clarity between application barriers versus operational barriers so they were able to focus on their goals.

Your customers are the only source of information that can give you a pulse on your direction. 

Was it this simple? Was the ability to build competitive edge really about asking and speaking with customers?

Recently, I have been speaking to many people about machine learning, a discipline I specialize in, and the most effective applications that are applicable. Most assume this is about creating ‘robots’ and further automating their business process. As I would ask the questions about technology and customer-centricity, many responded with focus on investments and process as opposed to the customer. It was difficult to understand the story they were telling both internally and externally.

I wondered why.

Upon reflection I began to review the thousands of conversations I had with business leaders I had the fortune to connect with and I learned, vicariously, their lessons over time i.e. what gave them their competitive edge. What was the special ‘juju’ that made them and their company stand out?

These leaders spanned across media, marketing, sales, operations and represented different business units typically found in the financial services sectors. What I realized after assessing all the discussions was all those business leaders fell into two camps: (generally speaking)

  1. Those that knew what they wanted; vs
  2. Those that didn’t know what they wanted

Note: This interaction was typically among thriving business that were in tech, research, retail, commerce, and would be classified as a (b2b) and (b2c) focused. Most were located in innovation hubs in the following areas: Silicon Valley, Boston, New York, Toronto, Vancouver, Austin etc.

Despite the variance in business models, they all took moderate-to-significant strides in building infrastructures of technology platforms over time that would help them scale.

We would look at new initiatives, new solutions, organizational shifts and would, typically at various stages of these digital advancements, and they would share candidly their Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s). Regardless, this was the commonality: in most cases each of the leaders would share significantly different results or data points that generally indicated upward momentum and success (directional indications).

Compared to discussions I had with Chief Financial Officers or other financial leaders, who were used to more standard reporting, which created a black and white picture of their business performance, it was clear disparity existed. You can’t creatively fudge the numbers out of a balance sheet or income statement and use aspirational or figurative metrics to represent the actual number. You can’t come up with a new data point to replace something that was universally known as a standard metric.

There were different objectives at play here, but I couldn’t help but to believe the one thing they were relating to was certainty. They were used to seeing what they’ve always seen: the established process and agreed-upon metrics. Why would anyone derail from this? I began to ponder this further as accounting has not been immune to innovation or other disruptions and the available tools to create efficiency, effectiveness and productivity have been ample at any growth stage.

So they aren’t living in an entirely different age where choice is not available.

So what was it?

The Accounting Parallel

The finance function did not let their investments in automation, or anything that helped streamline process and delivery, change the standards for reporting.

I believe we are in an interesting juncture when it comes to other business leaders, and how they relate to technology advancements and what they require to meet their evolving objectives. Leading indicators of the business health need to be certain, yet not focus on the ‘lag’ and archaic metrics of the business.

We lost the standard that defined our strategy. We allowed ourselves to count things over prioritizing outcomes. We divided our functions even further and built silos

This led to reducing our accountability as the data and metrics became more fragmented. Over time, those who were defined for NOT knowing what they wanted, began to rely on data that made it increasingly difficult to to create a story with customers.

They spoke to customers without really knowing them.

We are telling our story internally using stale processes and data that have been there from the beginning. And it’s the wrong narrative.

Those who know what they want, focus on individual success and know the most important metrics that give their company a competitive advantage! Full stop. Nothing more. Nothing less. 

They invest their time, energy and focus on ensuring their company is always at an advantage.

What was it that differentiated them from those that “didn’t know what they wanted”? Those that knew what they wanted measured their journey with their customers and not the other way around. They knew when to shift, adapt and react, always keeping the customer and the customer’s perception of the business in sync. They knew that as they invested into technology partners– agencies, consultants etc.– their ultimate scorecard was the uplift in measuring their ability to speak WITH and not AT their customer. They understood the customer desires and how to communicate to their customer, by channel and by frequency.

The challenge, when we dug deeper, was understanding those who didn’t know this, fell in the other camp and were restricted by the same trusted partners. How many times have I heard this from people who I admire and respect tremendously,

Our agency won’t let us do that…or my data can’t do that… I’m waiting for this first…I need to wait until it fails… that is not our focus yet”.

It’s the same excuse, “That’s not how things are done!”

It is this that limits both groups and hinders progress and new thinking. It’s what pushes a company and its people into the doldrums of complacency.

While the internal processes and KPIs persist, the customer and the market are changing. And the organizations are failing to keep up.

Progress should motivate organizations to acknowledge new technological ideas and be open to implementing alternative operational schemes when these opportunities present themselves.

Life, itself, consists of series of continual changes. These changes make humanity strive and evolve. You can be part of it by accepting them or remain stagnant and complacent … and irrelevant, in the process.

Technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage and those who manage what they do not understand.

Digital acceleration starts with digital and organizational transformation. Your blind spots, at times, when removed, gives you crystal clarity and helps define the winning advantage. Many are relying on misinformed decisions and fear of creating a new tranches of uncertainty which, in my view, is regressive.

You need to take a leap of faith and be always ready to try something new because it’s not always about business; it’s about the customer, and a large proportion of customers embrace new things. That is the era we are now in.The Haves and Have Nots. Those that know what they want and those that don’t know what they want.

Those that regain the confidence to know what they want will take off their blinders. They will be able to maximize the value of their past and future investments, and will have a precise handle on their ultimate metrics — those directly attributable to their customer. Developing awareness of how your company or your business leaders measure your customer centricity is the catalyst to shifting your mindset.

Can you, at any point in time, capture the story that your customers are creating?

Is it the same as you imagined, or have you mistaken metrics for data? Customer centricity requires a step back in order to go forward — It’s much easier than you may realize. Your customer is the best source of insights that give you the leading indication your process is right, and your process is working. Let’s not forget what you are measuring.

And much like the ever-trusted typewriter, that was once so essential to man, it too has morphed in wonderful ways to give humans more powerful ways to communicate with each other, and become more relevant over time. A simple lesson for the Have Nots.

Sincerely, Dalia Asterbadi