Competition takes many forms, but with an almost universal characteristic: A serious competitor has something new. It could be an invention, a cheaper and better manufacturing method, a better supply chain, new ways to reach the customer, a new insight, or some other game-changing innovation. Everyone else must quickly adapt to the new or fail.

What’s new in trading today? You could say online consumers or mobile shopping – or even the rise of direct-to-consumer marketers and the increasing use of data analytics and AI for manufacturing and sales. However, there is one thing that affects all of this.

We are in a new era of surfaces.

By “surface” we mean one of the myriad ways in which consumers now seek information, entertainment, commerce, and social life. These include mobile devices, voice communications, kiosks and increasingly smart watches, connected cars, many TVs, connected exercise machines and more. These are all aspects of the user’s one connected life that is part of their life in the physical world and therefore should not be viewed exclusively as separate channels and experiences. Clearly, the “customer journey” has many more paths and richer context than ever before.

Instead of asking, “What is our mobile strategy?” or “Should we do something about the connected ergometer?” companies should be asking questions like, “What’s the context when our customers use this surface? What is a simplified customer experience on this surface?” And perhaps most importantly, “What knowledge are we trying to gather here to better serve customers?”

In our conversations with both successful traditional businesses and dynamic new companies, here’s what we learned about how businesses can begin to implement this trend that will soon affect all businesses.

Why is this happening?

The emergence of surfaces is an evolution in the decades-long process of connected life. In both technology and society, networks become more powerful as they gain nodes and connections. Even before the digital age, people looked for connections between their phone numbers and mailing addresses for purposes such as catalog shopping and receiving services.

In today’s day and age, when smartphone, wearable and connected TV information is coming together, it effectively allows for a more complete representation of the customer’s life and needs. Customers choose these services to have a better seamless experience. These surfaces are now providing businesses with new ways to serve their customers. Businesses can gain new types of data about needs and behavior to make their products and services more relevant. For example, car manufacturers can provide just-in-time assistance by providing information faster and in an accessible format to drivers, while helping OEMs better understand what drivers need.

Why businesses should care

This new focus creates continuity of the customer experience regardless of the engagement surface, both digital and physical. This affects business processes and requires new workflows. Where there was a traditional step-by-step brand recognition process leading up to marketing, from marketing to sales and from sales to after-sales, today’s customer expects something more personalized throughout their customer journey.

This requires businesses to look at their products, operations and experiences in new ways. Traditionally, the creation of a new product begins with extensive customer surveys, lots of research, product and packaging development, creating perhaps a few million units, then they are released to the market, with the result assessed later. In a surface-oriented scenario, there are many more data signals from more sources: The outcome of each meeting quickly informs every future sale, every marketing approach, and every product decision.

The technology that makes this possible

There are several dimensions of surface-centric understanding. Context is perhaps the easiest to establish, as it is largely inherent to the type of surface (if someone is on a connected bike, they are probably exercising). The simpler the customer experience, the easier the connection to interact, usually through voice communication. It helps businesses better understand their customers by leveraging a near-continuous data feed that is collected, processed and acted upon in near real-time.

Data, analytics and machine learning make this approach possible. The flow of data from all these surfaces is being ingested into machine learning and analytics platforms, generating new insights and opportunities for growth.

How businesses can start implementing this

There’s a lot to learn in what’s new here — that’s the nature of great competitive advantages — but as we explore this new world, it’s helpful to remember that the new grows out of the time-proven. When the only “surface” was the mail-order catalog or the store, marketers collected data from their physical sites, counted cars in a parking lot, looked at sales at different shelf heights, or matched customer preferences to zip codes. To engage and delight their customers better, they did so by using the best possible data.

In today’s world of multiple surfaces and enhanced technological capabilities, companies must continue this practice by using data from these surfaces and new tools to analyze that data. They should develop scorecards of their entry points, the types of interactions at each, and their success rates. They also need to combine the data across these interactions for deeper insights into end-to-end customer journeys.

In a world of far greater opportunity, the truth that real difference comes from customer-focused innovation has not changed. If anything, it’s truer than ever.

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