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The Connected Enterprise

PODCAST

C Space on Technology's Role in Enabling Closer Customer Contact During Today's Crisis

Posted by Vision33 on Mar 23, 2020 12:30:00 PM

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Full Transcript

Carl:

Welcome to the Connected Enterprise podcast, where we discuss how our customers and the supply chains stay connected. I’m Carl Lewis, your host from Vision 33, and these days, there are new questions. Our guest today, Alan Moskowitz from C Space, may have answers. Alan, welcome. Please tell us about yourself, C Space, and your work there.

Alan:

Thanks for having me, Carl. I'm a vice president at C Space. We call ourselves a customer agency, which is foreign for people because there really aren't any customer agencies! But we started years ago, building the first private online communities for customer research. When the internet was still evolving, a password-protected website where you could talk privately and confidentially with your customers was new.

Alan:

Fast forward to now – we went from doing market research and listening to consumers to moving them up through entire organizations. Everybody says they want to be customer-centric, so we challenge clients to bring that to life from the C-suite down. We help organizations build their company strategy with customer input, including their marketing, product, and service development. I've been doing it for 13 years. I specialize in food and beverage, and every day is exciting. During this crisis, though, it feels especially relevant to be in touch with companies and customers every minute, every day.

Carl:

You're right. It’s as if the palette of life suddenly has a new color that’s part of everything we do and think about. C Space uses technology to help businesses understand their customers and become a customer-first organization. What are you discussing with your clients now? How are they planning to move forward?

Alan:

It's a fascinating moment. The basis of most of our client relationships is an online community, but we also do in-person work. Right now, though, we're entirely online. As in-person has shut down, many clients said, "Help us continue learning and doing the work we need to do in this crisis – but let's transition to online."

Alan:

There are many ways to do it. This morning was an interesting example. A client said, "We need to understand what's happening across the web. What are people saying about our brand?" We applied a social listening tool in an hour and pulled together themes and feedback. Another client has a fascinating tool that allows us to do qual-quant research in an almost-live focus group setting with 100-150 people. Our technology lets us inside people's homes to understand their experiences. People can post videos, do daily journals, etc., and technology is at the heart of it since personal interaction is out of the question.

Carl:

Everyone is hunkered down and working in their space, wherever that might be. I think we’ll see a lot of children, dogs, and cats in the background of videos for a while! But most of your customers are retail customers and food and beverage suppliers, right? Do they still have people in the warehouse working face to face with customers across the counter?

Alan:

Some do. We’ve seen many retail customers shut down their operations, and I’m sure they’re thinking, “What’s next?” Which is what we're talking about.

Carl:

Do they have ideas about going forward?

Alan:

It depends on the customer and the industry. My grocery customers are determining how to communicate with employees and customers about how they’re building confidence. How do they counteract negative impressions from early in this crisis about what they did or didn’t do? For example, the grocery clients are getting beat up because customers feel like they didn't prepare properly, such as by putting limitations on what people could buy. And their employees didn’t feel empowered to do it. Nobody was ahead of this. It's fascinating to use technology to connect with customers and share that so they can make changes and tell employees what customers said and how to respond. There's a response cycle that’s more urgent than any time in the years I've been doing this.

Carl:

I've been amazed as shelter-in-place recommendations have come out. And how many emails I've gotten from businesses I’ve done business with once! A hotel chain, an airline, etc. telling me how they’re combatting the virus. I see why companies want to know what people are saying and thinking, and when they send those messages, it touches on the salient points. Is that what they're trying to get to?

Alan:

This is evolving so quickly. But every company has the same message, and consumers are thinking, “Enough of that already.” Everybody is sanitizing. I read a customer quote just an hour ago: "We get it. That's table stakes now. What else are you doing? How are you helping your community? What are you doing beyond sanitizing?" That's a fascinating part of being involved in a tight, technology-driven connection between customers and businesses. We've never seen anything develop with this sense of immediacy. Two days ago, reassurances from companies were important, but they’re the wrong message today. People want to know, “How will you serve me next? How will you be a partner to me?”

Alan:

One thing that’s a challenge is automating real language analysis. We need to speed up the timeframe of listening to people, understanding them, and then feeding it back. Real language analysis is hard because none of the current tools work well. If you speak to your digital assistant, it often gets what you’re saying wrong. Imagine taking tens of thousands of lines of comments and responses from your customers and trying to boil it down to something meaningful. The tools and text analytics are okay, but they don't do the job at the level of nuance we need. It still requires a human to have context. We’re using the tools, but they only get us part of the way there.

Carl:

One thing crises do is force us to take a fresh look at how we're using our technology and face the fact that we're often trying to push a square peg into a round hole.

Alan:

I agree.

Carl:

We're not going to get anything more out of what we have, so we need something new. The paradigm will change, and customers feel it. They say, “We expect you to have a safe, clean environment for us to come buy our goods. But how are you engaged with the community and trying to help?”

Alan:

I work a lot with the younger generations. We talk about millennials and gen Z so much, and the industry is adopting more of what's stereotypically important to them – buying from companies that share their values. That hasn't been the case in the technology space; it was more product-driven. But people increasingly care and times like this highlight which companies have the values we care about.

Alan:

And it's not a time to sell. You have to be careful right now. You don’t want to seem like you’re capitalizing on the moment. But you can have an authentic and empathetic voice. We try to get organizations to develop customer empathy. Who is my customer as a human? What do they care about? What motivates them as professionals? This is an interesting moment where that becomes crystal clear. It's not enough that your product has the capabilities. It must be more. It must be that if things go bad, I can count on you to be someone who understands.

Carl:

You mentioned you're meeting with customers remotely now. Do you find that they’re proficient at remote engagements? Are they struggling to be competent with meeting software?

Alan:

We've come to the time where our communication software and protocols have shown how flawed they are. Every organization is on a different platform. Everyone has different firewalls on their VPNs. Then we have to consider our relationships with clients and what’s acceptable on calls. You mentioned dogs and cats. I've seen dogs, cats, children, and spouses. I've seen clients in their homes.

Alan:

Lots of new rules. I love that the situation is forcing us to act differently and change our relationships. To get rid of protocols that hinder real business creativity and communication. Some of my conversations with clients are more honest now. It’s as if restraints we have in typical conversations fall away.

Carl:

I agree.

Alan:

It’s exciting. But yes, I'm seeing more pets and people struggling to get online and have conversations with software. But we'll make it work. Ask me two weeks from now, and I bet everyone will be fine.

Carl:

I’m amazed that the only people not working remotely are the 10 to 11% of workers who do their jobs in warehouses, storefronts, etc. The rest of us – 90% of workers in the USA – will be figuring out, some for the first time, how to do their jobs remotely. And that will change their interaction with their customers.

Carl:

It's a new day. Art Buchwald said, "Whether these be the best of times or the worst of times, no one could tell. One thing is for sure – they're the only times we've got, so make the most of it." And you're in the business of helping your customers do that. Communications are changing, but some have this product, some have that product, and they have trouble talking to each other. We have trouble learning how to use them. Is this an opening to bring new players into the marketplace with better technologies?

Alan:

I see that. In a moment like this, there isn’t a lot of room for error, and people will ditch platforms that don't work. Desperation will cause people to make decisions faster. One thing we all bemoan in business is how slow the decision process is. You'll put a task force together to evaluate the software and on and on. But now that there’s a need, those channels get broken down, and people make decisions more quickly.

Alan:

It’s happening already. We're seeing it at the federal government level – new rules invoked that allowed decisions to be made more quickly. The same thing will happen in business. The only problem might be budgets. But people will pivot more quickly.

Carl:

This virus presents problems, but it's an opportunity for businesses to reflect, reevaluate, and maybe hit the reset button on some things. The virus has pressed the pause button, and we don't get many of those. What are you going to do with that pause?

Alan:

In my business, we’re not seeing a pause. We’re seeing an acceleration of “How do I communicate with them and learn from them more quickly?” The sales cycle for many businesses will almost shut down. We have clients saying, "We're worried about the future and need to revisit our contract with you." But the sense of urgency has been fascinating coming from the C-suite. They're saying, "It's more important than ever to use technology to listen, engage, and understand." We're seeing an openness to the communication technologies we've been pitching but that people have been hesitant about. Now they're ready.

Carl:

Sometimes a crisis helps you listen more effectively. How will this change business overall? In six months, what will businesses have in their minds going forward? Are there things they’ll be better prepared for?

Alan:

That’s a tough question. Businesses will think more deeply about their relevance to their customers. About more than just their products' attributes, but who they are as a company and their partnership with customers. We've been moving toward this for a while and the message has particularly been coming from younger people. They want brands to be more relevant. As those younger people advance in their careers and become the software buyers and decision-makers, they’ll continue to look for companies to be relevant in a deeper way, such as with values promoting sustainability and supporting local communities.

Alan:

If we look at history during periods of crisis, there are emotional changes in how people evaluated what was important to them. It eventually fades, and people forget, but then comes another crisis to remind us. After this crisis, businesses will be more human, more emotional, and more invested in understanding customers and how to relate to them.

Carl:

That's a good insight. It's a continuation of something that's been pushed by the younger generations. It’s the digital transformation concept. Many people forget that the reason for digital transformation is to better connect with customers and make business more personal. We got caught up in the technology without realizing it had a purpose. And you’re saying relationships with customers will be at the forefront as opposed to just being an outcome of the transition people are trying to do.

Alan:

Yes, and the purpose of the company, which is the bigger picture we don't always talk about. Apple is the ultimate example. After Apple created either the iPhone and iPad, other companies developed devices with more and better features, and they thought they could market them. But as a company, Apple stood for something more relevant to customers, like how it fit into people's lives and how it projected itself as a company with a sort of rebellious leadership. A combination of product and brand relevancy will be increasingly important.

Carl:

I remember Steve Jobs was the first CEO I ever saw who didn't wear a jacket and tie. It removed a layer that separated the C-suite from everybody else. Interesting times. What about C Space? You aren’t a large company. How are communication and people working remotely going for you guys in these early days?

Alan:

We're over 400 in headcount. We have offices in London, New York, San Francisco, Boston, and other scattered places around the United States; we also have offices in few other countries. We're used to communicating online. We're doing well. We just built a cool new internal hub as part of our communication strategy.

Alan:

We're built on communicating, so part of the new communication hub is shoutouts where we thank or congratulate our coworkers. It's a bit of social media. We have nine distinct values, and we call people out for each value almost daily. People get shoutouts for telling it like it is, doing what matters, or anything we consider important. The biggest challenge is we're a very extroverted, social company, and this is challenging for a lot of my colleagues.

Carl:

We're about the same size and competent with social tools as well. We use Yammer internally. Some of us are better than others at getting conversations going and replicating face-to-face stuff online. We’ll rely on those folks a lot in the days ahead.

Alan:

I mentioned earlier how this crisis is challenging us to think about some of our protocols. This is the first time I’ve ever video chatted with some clients, but with others, whenever you have a conversation or a meeting with them, everyone is expected to be on video. That wasn't the case with other clients or some internal partners, but the rules have suddenly changed, and now the protocol is "let's see each other."

Carl:

We've had cameras on for all internal remote meetings. It's good. But my concern is that we’ll discover how limited the tools are when we do it on a larger scale.

Alan:

We’ll definitely find limitations.

Carl:

Alan, it's been great to have you on today. I appreciate that we didn't go through my regular agenda and talked about things happening right now with some context. Do you have a piece of advice from the things you’ve been doing with your customers you’d like to offer listeners?

Alan:

There’s an exercise I learned at a consumer-focused event; I'll leave you with that. Imagine your 15-year-old self. What was your favorite thing to do on the weekend? What were you most afraid of? What were your hopes and dreams? Got that?

Carl:

Yes.

Alan:

Now think about your customers and try to answer those same questions for them as a 15-year-old. What were their hopes and dreams? What were their goals? What scares them? What keeps them up at night? Most of us don't know our customers that well. We don't even know the people we deal with daily that well. Let's make business more human and learn more than the superficial.

Carl:

That’s a great note to end on, Alan. Thank you. This is Carl Lewis for the Connected Enterprise podcast. Take care of yourselves and your family and friends. Say hello and check on one another. Stay connected.

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