Browsing the news headlines this week you’d be forgiven for thinking you were caught in a timewarp given the excitement generated by news from two very different organisations involving plastic product innovation.
The buzz is more understandable when you consider it involves plastic versions of items people today consider to be their most essential possessions - a smartphone and money. This week Apple unveiled its new multi-coloured iPhone5C which it described as ‘beautifully, unapologetically plastic’, while the Bank of England said it is considering introducing wipe-clean plastic banknotes from 2016.
Plastic may seem more retro than cutting-edge to some but in each case there was evidence of the logic behind the decisions. For Apple, a plastic phone offers the prospect of sales to consumers seeking a lower priced iPhone. Meanwhile the Bank of England said that plastic banknotes will be cleaner, more durable and more secure. Production costs will be 50% higher but plastic notes will deliver £100 million cost savings as they need replaced less frequently than paper notes.
It is premature to pronounce on the likely success of either innovation but in the midst of the hoopla over the announcements, it should not be forgotten that the voices that really matter when it comes to new product or service innovations are those of customers.
In CCA Future Scenarios work on the future of customer service, we identified the concept of the ‘customer advocate’ - a more important and influential role for customers than has historically been the case in most organisations, regardless of sector. It is an important element of the Future Blueprint we’re developing and preparing to reveal at Convention.
The role envisaged involves more than the usual understanding of advocacy, it extends as far as a collaborator and co-creator role which ensures the resulting customer experience is a wholly positive one - and from the organisation’s perspective should lead to successful adoption of their product or service.
Apple’s embrace of plastic will be put to the test by customers when the next round of sales figures show whether or not consumers believe it adds to their customer experience in a meaningful way, whether via aethetics, practicality or a lower price.
For its part, the Bank of England has promised to consult the public on its decision. The verdict may well be favourable - like many parents, I quite like the idea of a bank note that won’t disintegrate when I pull it out of my teenager’s jeans pocket after a full cycle wash. Whether or not it will work as well in cash machines and payment slots or will cause problems in integrating with bank notes issued by Scottish or Northern Irish banks which will presumably retain paper notes, remains to be seen.
The simple lesson is that a commitment to customer consultation is critical in any such endeavour. You only have to look at the travails of the electric car for a case in point. Governments, environmentalists and car companies are big supporters of electric cars but for a battery of sound reasons - convenience, lack of charging stations, performance and price - consumers are largely steering clear despite subsidies and political pressure.
Effective and continuous customer consultation and engagement are paramount for any successful organisation today. A recent survey found that customer engagement is now the key concern for Chief Marketing Officers, with 52% citing it as their number one concern. Within the category of customer engagement, the top concerns cited included creating sustainable and engaging customer relationships (30%) and providing an effective customer experience (22%).
However, the customer relationship is not the exclusive preserve of the marketing department, the voice of the customer must permeate all levels of an organisation and board directors must recognise the importance of the customer service operation as not only a critical touchpoint but a valuable listening post.
In any new product launch, whether plastic or gilt-edged, we all have a role to play in ensuring that we have processes in place to convey the voice of the customer to the very top of the organisation at all stages of the journey.