Some readers might remember the jingle from a certain well-known fastfood chain’s 1970s “Have It Your Way” campaign:

“Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce. Special orders don’t upset us. All we ask is that you let us serve it your way.”

The company was seeking to differentiate itself from a better known competitor by embracing customer participation through personalized hamburgers.

Today, businesses can embrace customer participation digitally, empowering customers to take control of part of the supply chain themselves by taking advantage of hyper-personalized recommendations, products, and services. “Serve yourself, your way,” might be a modern mantra.

I recently wrote about how growing to digital maturity—from doing digital to being digitalreorients the enterprise toward building customer loyalty. That in leads to greater revenues, a better reputation, and improved employee satisfaction. The defining characteristic of businesses that are digitally mature is customer-centricity.

Digital businesses embrace customer-centricity—or autonomy, from the customer’s point-of-view—as a guiding strategy. They use digital tools to redefine how customers interact and engage with each other and the business. Their goal is to enable customers to leverage the company’s assets and capabilities—so that customers can design their own experiences. Digital businesses will even embed customers into previously firewalled-off processes, establishing them as main actors in the value chain.

The bright line test: customer-centricity

Customers often leverage these capabilities in ways that the originating business might never have conceived of—creating more value. This requires organizations to open up their ecosystems and allow new levels of transparency, even if it means cannibalizing a piece (or pieces) of their business.

Such an approach requires a new mindset and attitude toward value creation. Technologies and processes that enable customer autonomy are well-developed at companies that were born digital, and are emerging at more traditionally minded businesses as they look to become that way.

Today’s customers are only beginning to see the potential benefits of customization.  It’s not hard to conceive of ways in which customer-preferred configurations and even customer feedback on desirable innovations are filtering back to the factory floor at industries worldwide. 3-D printing shops offer design interfaces and services to customers who wish to create their own products, engineering their own prototypes. Today’s car buyers are “building their own” (even if sales personnel will still submit the order to the manufacturer). It won’t be long before customers’ expectations—both those businesses and consumers—dictate a change in how hard goods are designed, assembled, and shipped, as they customize their own experiences of favored brands.

The many faces of customer autonomy

Customer autonomy is an old concept made new in the digital age. Other examples include:

  • Co-innovationCo-innovation: Through the Nike+ social platform, customers share their running experiences with peers, not simply describing to others their experiences but encouraging a dialogue that promotes the Nike brand and provides the shoe company with first-hand design ideas based on real user .
  • Sharing economy: Through a platform developed for DHL that uses the flexibility of private couriers to personalize when and where parcels are delivered, customers and businesses can customize their own parcel deliveries—a sharing-economy approach to package delivery for an entire industry.
  • Prosumerization: Prosumers are consumers who have adopted digital capability and social media together to create a virtuous proto-business cycle that benefits both buyer and seller. One example: An AirBnB user–called a “community representative” and is not an employee– who proactively provides professional, savvy customer service. Another: Some utilities enable energy customers to become users who produce and consume energy at the same time. Energy customers who reduce their consumption or generate their own can store that excess power and sell it on a peer-to-peer model, significantly reducing energy retail costs. In another such prosumer model, consumers connect on social platforms to coach each other on energy use.
  • API-enabled business ecosystems: As devices that are able to leverage digital data scale exponentially, and as social models for new sales channels proliferate, organizations are sitting on a gold mine of information assets. Telecommunication companies were perhaps the first to create API platforms, enabling developers to incorporate telecommunications services into their applications. Today, the “API economy” provides the glue that ties together disparate data and systems, exposing a uniform data layer to the end-customer through devices like smartphones, wearables, and IoT devices.

Isolated digital initiatives and a diluted, cost-focused approach to achieving customer-centricity and personalization won’t enable established enterprises to keep pace with competitors that either were born digital or quickly learned to be from market pioneers. Businesses that are digital to the core focus on a delivering a digitally-defined experience, so customers know where they can “have it their way.”

For myself, as not only a professional engaged in digital technologies, but also an adept modern consumer, I am most impressed by companies that offer me choices along with making choices for me. A personalized customer experience, enabled by digital and augmented by artificial intelligence that harnesses the power of computerization and algorithmic function simplifies my decision-making. It feels personal; it’s also efficient, enabling, even fun.

Interested in learning more? Read my recent article. And I hope you’ll consider sharing with me what approach your organization is using to deliver a customer centric.

Robert Asen

Robert Asen

Rob Asen leads Cognizant Business Consulting’s North American Strategy and Transformation Practice. His primary areas of client service include CIO advisory, the... Read more