Joining the conversation

Skills and technology to succeed in the connected market place

The post below was first published as a guest article in the March 2011 issue of
Powerchex’s newsletter. A direct link to the original article is available here.

Once upon a time, sellers and buyers would meet in marketplaces and have conversations with each other about the product, the user’s needs, other offers on the market, and so on. To succeed in this market, managers needed to understand the local customers’ needs, and optimise their offer given the limited resources available.

Then came industrialisation, leading to mass production and standardisation. The distance between sellers and buyers increased, and communication between the seller and the buyer was mostly one directional and done through advertisements in mass media. Some markets still operate this way, either naturally, or because governments put artificial limits on competition and customers’ access to information. Such markets are a minority, however – and a rapidly shrinking one.

For all other organisations, the market is now a very different place. It is characterised by numerous and strong interactions between sellers and buyers, as well as within each group. In this market place, customers are empowered by choice and access to information. A study by mobile phone operators looking at trends in text messaging, calls and internet searches identified hot spots around store changing rooms as shoppers go online to check out prices or even send pictures to their friends for feedback.

Today, markets are conversation places, where customers talk with each other, asking and offering referrals, and connecting about problems they have with products or companies. They post videos about their negative experiences, compose songs about their frustration with big corporations, and tweet about what they perceive to be unsatisfactory practices. More than 130 million blogs have been indexed since 2002, with bloggers posting over 900 thousand updates per day and noticeable peaks of activity around significant events.

If markets are conversations, how can organisations succeed?

It has long been established that customer-facing employees play a key role in customer satisfaction levels and influence customer loyalty and positive word of mouth. This is particularly important in the context of service encounters, where the member of staff is the key contact point before, during and after the purchase. The role of frontline employees in service perception has been the subject of considerable research in marketing (for instance, this paper), resulting in the identification of five dimensions of employee behaviour that influence customer perception of service delivery. They are:
– Mutual understanding
– Authenticity
– Extra attention
– Competence, and
– Meeting minimum standards.

To tap into the on-going conversations in the market, organisations need employees with a hybrid skills set. Specifically, they need employees with business skills, as well as ‘e-skills’ – that is, the skills needed to work across cultural borders in network-based teams, and to engage with consumers and suppliers to share knowledge and information. Once specialist skills, these are now cascading down, and quickly becoming part of the expected levels of digital business literacy.

A research team at INSEAD conducted an audit of the level of e-skills among Europe’s workforce. The researchers concluded that there is a growing gap between the skills needed by European firms and the ability to generate or acquire such skills. This gap started in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector but is now spreading to many others. It is particularly high in Poland and Romania, but also visible in traditionally highly networked countries like Denmark, Sweden, Finland or the United Kingdom.

Where the difference between e-skills supply and demand is only a matter of skills shortage, it can be solved through outsourcing selected functions and processes, or recruiting people with the right skills set. At times, however, the gap is more profound and there is a competence shortfall that can only be overcome through training and staff development. In the extreme case, the mismatch between the skills on offer and those needed can only be overcome through changes in the schools’ curriculum, which take a long time to develop, get accredited and implement, and even longer to produce the desired results.

Who are these employees?

The new breed of employees uses technology creatively. According to Forrester:
– 27% use login-required websites that the company doesn’t sanction for work purposes
– 12% download and use their own apps
– 8% use personal smartphones for work purposes

Increasingly, these employees expect flexible working patterns and autonomy, even in the early stages of their careers. Moreover, they are motivated by intrinsic as well as extrinsic motivations. That is why Google emphasises to its prospective employees that they ‘created a fun and inspiring workspace you’ll be glad to be a part of, including on-site doctor and dentist; massage and yoga; professional development opportunities; shoreline running trails; and plenty of snacks to get you through the day.

These employees develop their own professional identities independently of their employers’, including their own blogs and twitter feeds. At times, the two identities build on each other. Padmasree Warrior, Cisco’s CTO, is one such case – with more than 1.3 million followers on Twitter, she writes about her movie nights with friends and family, as well as Cisco’s product launches or public engagements. On other occasions, however, the two identities clash, as Connor Riley found out when she tweeted ‘Cisco just offered me a job!  Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty paycheck against the daily commute and hating the work’. Unsurprisingly, a Cisco employee quickly picked up the post, and passed it on to her hiring manager.

What is the role of technology in the new workplace?

To engage with customers in the conversational market place, and maximise the productivity of networked employees, organisations need to develop a conversational work place, too. Specifically, in addition to recruiting and developing e-skilled individuals, organisations need to foster conversations among their employees.

Today, small and large organisations, commercial as well as not for profit ones, can use a vast array of tools and technologies to facilitate communication among its members. Executive blogs can be used to express personal identities online, as well as become a source of running commentary on issues of relevance to the organisation. Sandy Ogg’s blog is an example of how these online journals can improve communication and transparency even in a large, multinational corporation like Unilever. Micro-blogging services like Yammer, in turn, can speed up decision-making. Web-based file sharing technology offers versatile solutions for document management, and discussion forums are fertile ground for new ideas and problem solving. Intranets make it easier for staff to work remotely and manage resources, while helping build culture and create engagement.

Joining the conversation

We have, in a way, returned to a market place where sellers and buyers can interact directly to each other, on a more personalised basis. The main differences between this new market place and the one described at the beginning of this article is the scale of the interactions on the one side, and the role of technology on the other. The changes in technology and its use means that a disgruntled customer’s blog post, video or status update may reach viral status rapidly, and remain available for other current or potential customers to access well past the original problem has been rectified.

In response to customers’ changing behaviour, many firms invested considerable resources in monitoring and responding to comments on blogs, social networks and other outlets. This requires a new set of skills – a mixture of business as well as technical acumen. The technology supporting this new, highly connected market place is still evolving and, so, too, the skills set required to successfully join the conversation are in flux. We are likely to see some volatility, still, but the overall trend towards connection and conversation is clear and should not be ignored.

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