One of the biggest misconceptions about ‘digital transformation’ is the assumption that everything is becoming less human. We hear of factories operating without windows or daylight since all of the staff have been replaced by robots. Of self-driving cars and even flying taxis, painting a bleak picture for the future job prospects of taxi drivers and pilots. Or even of 3D printers, capable of reproducing whole organs at the push of a button. As the old saying goes: “Honey, could you get me another kidney from the office?!” Robots, algorithms, artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency, machine learning, big data, geolocation, cookies, clones: The rise of the machines is upon us. Humans are being driven out. The apocalypse is nigh. And yet: Aren’t we missing a trick?
If by “digitalising our business processes” companies mean they’re designing their websites to be responsive, making their product brochures available as downloadable PDFs or “even working with influencers from time to time”, then they’re akin to travellers focused more on the end goal than the journey. If you think digital transformation is mainly a technological revolution, you’re missing the point. And if you think it’s about replacing humans with neat artificial intelligence you’re confusing the instrument with the musician. Similarly, you’re mistaking cause and effect. Because it’s us, humans, who are the driving force behind digital transformation. We are at the heart of the whole thing.
The digital transformation is in essence a human one: the return of the people to the heart of the action. It goes without saying: The disruptive power of technological innovations and the speed at which more and more groundbreaking ideas are working their way onto the market and into our lives are unprecedented, dwarfing everything, even the industrial revolution. This already holds today. Even more so for the future. And the pace is rising. And yet: (Digital) technology in itself is only the vehicle. The actual revolution isn’t digital, but human: the emancipation of the individual against the market. The focus and balance of power shifting away from companies, products or the anonymous economic mass onto individuals and their unique needs and wishes.
It was in the interest of man that the cogwheels of the economy first began turning in the dim and distant past. Over time man has been pushed aside by the dogmas of “profit maximisation”, “productivity”, “increasing efficiency” and “market dominance”, to the point that humans are merely a link in the chain, a chain they themselves created.
The digital revolution is now helping, ironically because through its maximum efficiency, and its conquering and levelling of any and all borders and limitations, the “human factor” is now firmly back at the centre of the universe. Surrounded by all of its economic planets with all their smart vintage cars and digital satellites. While some are looking ahead to robot factories and impending unemployment with fear and trepidation, others are already working behind the scenes on the introduction of an unconditional basic income. Perhaps more from a calculated sociopolitical standpoint than out of altruism but so be it. Slowly but surely they are helping the former “victims of digitalisation” to share in the rewards of technological progress. So really we’re living in a “Back to the roots 2.0”, a “revolution” in the truest sense of the word: not the creation of something entirely new but a “rollback” in the balance of economic and societal power.
In a business context this rollback means putting the customer (and employee) back at the heart of company operations. A hundred years ago we had Henry Ford proclaiming smugly that “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black”. Now we have Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and currently the world’s richest man (as of October 2018), saying: “The most important thing is to have an obsessive-compulsive focus on the customer. Our aim is to become the world’s most customer-centric company.” A dreamer? Maybe. But one with 145 billion US dollars in private assets.
What’s the secret? Now at its ultimate peak, digitalisation is bringing about almost complete market transparency and information equality. Both on the company end and for employees and customers. Everyone knows everything. We’re comparing provider A with B. Getting expert advice and reading reviews. Checking share prices and test reports. Getting informed about employee internal affairs and how much our managers earn. In real time, in an instant. Platforms like Check24, Glassdoor and co. make it possible. Customers are becoming transparent, but they’re also arming themselves with knowledge, with power.
We’ve always known that “knowledge is power.” But today – and even more so in future – the question we must ask ourselves is: What should we do with this knowledge? And how should we use it to make our customers happier? For companies, the biggest challenge with the digital transformation is in bringing about a fundamental change in focus: away from a product-oriented mindset towards a radical and resolute customer-first approach. In which “customer” also refers to the “internal customer”, i.e. your staff, suppliers, partners and stakeholders. While employees were only “soft facts” during the industrial age, forced to fit the rigid raster of the job profile, in the digital era companies will only gain the upper hand by adapting their organisational processes to their employees. People have become “hard facts”. In truth: They have always been. But as already alluded to, the digital transformation is driving a necessity not only to find and keep employees. It is about creating a work environment that is agile and flexible enough to adapt to ever more rapidly changing market conditions. And at the same time promotes a culture in which the best in creativity, innovation and out-of-the-box solutions can take root, flourish and bear fruit.
In short, digital transformation is about asking a different question. Not: “How can our customers help us achieve OUR business goals (increase in profits, market power, shareholder satisfaction, fame and glory – you name it)?”, but: “How can our company help our customers acheive THEIR goals?” Old hat? Just words? Not at all. Even if the words sound familiar: The (often unsaid) reality of most companies usually reveals a different attitude: the nature and content of annual targets, commission payments based on sales figures rather than customer satisfaction, the silo thinking of internal departments and business areas, the user interface of websites, the availability of service hotlines, how received applications are dealt with and so on.
For marketing and sales teams this means shifting away from “How can I convince prospective customers that they need my products and services?” to: “What can I do to make my customer’s life better? What right has our company to exist from our customers’ point of view? And how can I re-envision my brand and services from the customer’s point of view and establish a claim that they create added value for the individual? At every relevant touchpoint. At every relevant time. In every relevant place. With a message that’s relevant NOW.”
It comes back to this: the dependency of the machine on humans. Because experience has taught us: Where we lack the human element, all our marketing automation tools mutate, ingenious and intelligent as they may be, to create customer-stalking cookie monsters. Innocent browsing on an online mail order company website leads to cross-platform banner advertising for “our” washing machine, mobile phone cover or cotton underwear. And it’s precisely here that artificial intelligence (AI) needs natural intelligence (NI): us. For the spontaneously creative unpredictability, the emotional tact, the feel for the right tone at the right time, the nuances between the lines that transcend rational “if A then B” formulae and styled algorythmic logic. Basically: human empathy. As society becomes increasingly digital it is precisely this “human factor” that will govern who succeeds and who fails on the market.
Go from feature seller to value seller. Go that level deeper, again and again. Observe yourself, your processes, your focus, your communication – from your recruitment process to your sales tools and your website structure. Look to your target group for their opinions and ask yourself this question honestly: Is what we do, how we do it and why we do it based on the benefit to the customer? Do we adapt to their needs or do we expect them to adapt to us? Do we talk about their wishes or about our abilities? Do we convince from the inside out – from the product – or from the outside in – from the customer? What can we do to become even more relevant to our customers and to make their market experience more valuable – from how we greet them on the phone to the products and services we offer them to our after-sales service? And how can we communicate in a believable, authentic and needs-focused way? And then capitalise on the full range of digital achievements to reach your customer whenever and wherever they need you. Here and now. One hundred percent digital. One hundred percent human. We wish you all the best!
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