Products and processes have always been a priority – that’s understandable. Change has been continuous: manufacturers have been on a journey that has taken them from the sweat of physical production towards automation and robotic assembly. Now a connected future beckons, with the dizzying potential of sensor data and Internet of Things ‘smart’ products and connected devices. Despite economic uncertainty, it’s generating exciting new digital services and direct-to-consumer concepts that have the potential to radically change how the manufacturing industry operates.

Customers are excited about the evolution of connected products – and it’s these customer needs and demands that are rapidly changing behaviors which are driving innovation in the industry.

This means that customers need to be at the center of the way manufacturers think and operate - now more than ever. Yet research highlighted by Deloitte suggests that consumer behavior is shifting from accepting that one-size-fits-all is the only available option to demanding customization and personalization. But according to Deloitte, many manufacturers are struggling to communicate with and receive feedback from their end consumers.

Perhaps that’s due to difficulties with innovation, but a worrying 77% also don’t consider improving customer satisfaction as a key business challenge. Customer needs may be falling down the priority list.
If manufacturers are to secure their future, what must they do? In the first of a series of blogs I take a look at the overarching changes that are going to drive manufacturers to adapt and alter their perspective in 2017 and beyond.

The changing customer

Businesses are already realizing that customers, both business and consumer, are becoming more difficult to attract, influence, and retain. Why is that?

  • The purchasing journey is becoming complex, and sales teams are responding by gaining a deeper understanding of the customer journey. Constantly connected to colleagues and cohorts, today’s buyers validate views, invite opinions, and share thoughts. Bombarded by marketing information, they are filtering out noise, and focusing only on relevance and sales organizations that truly understand their pain points.
  • The purchasing journey is now fully multi-channel, as buyers explore and compare online, on mobile, in stores, at home and work. Smart companies work to engage them earlier, create seamless experiences and build enduring, trusted relationships.
  • Personalized experiences are creating better customer connections. Customers respond to one-to-one experiences that go beyond product customization and spans their entire customer journey. Bespoke manufacturing is common at an industrial level, but personalization must go further. Customization via product options has long been a part of luxury car marketing, but Jaguar Land Rover has put personalization at the heart of sales at its Westfield store. It embraced the multi-channel purchasing journey, enabling the purchasing process to be continued and concluded online.
  • Customers increasingly seek outcomes and experiences rather than products and features. They want a brighter office, not lightbulbs, and a cozy bedroom instead of a heater. Consumers are welcoming brands that exceed their expectations and immerse them in delightful experiences.

The implications may seem more relevant to retailers – but they aren’t. Understanding customer motivations and values can inform every aspect of sales and marketing, inform product development and spark manufacturing innovation. And with the growth of direct-to-consumer as a business model, these changing customer demands are becoming absolutely fundamental to achieving success.

If customers are so central, where do you start?

To adapt to an increasingly connected, customer-centric world, manufacturers must recognize:

1. Customer visibility and understanding have become critical

Customers are always seeking a a way to solve their own problems – so to develop and sell well means understanding those needs. To enable value for someone, you must know what value means to them, understand their motivations, and how they identify their needs.

Unfortunately, some manufacturers have no direct customer relationships, particularly if their customers buy via channels like dealers and distributors. Even those that sell directly often keep customer data siloed from other business areas - whether because they don't have the right technology in place or because it hasn't historically been part of the company culture to share this information. IT systems usually become complex over time with data spread across different databases as well as production and warehousing systems never designed to interact with back office software. It is tough to see customers clearly, make that knowledge accessible to business users throughout the business, or build on it to drive better engagement.

Uniting your customer data, whether internally or in collaboration with partners, must be a business priority for manufacturers who want to sell more directly, or engage more directly, with their customers. It requires flexible systems of intelligent engagement to complement your systems of record and functional IT, that enable you to engage customers in the right way, on the right channels, at exactly the right times to gain their attention.

2. Connected customers need great experiences

Improving the overall customer experience can be seen as the retailer’s domain – but the benefits that will explode from IoT-connected products will form a fundamental part of the customer’s experience. Putting customer experience and service at the forefront of your thinking should become the manufacturer’s responsibility too – even if service is devolved to others.

“A consistent focus on customer service is a crucial ingredient for sustainable performance, especially in challenging times” insists the Institute of Customer Service. So, when a customer has a problem, even if a partner manages support for that customer, you need to be fully confident in the quality of service.

Each customer experience influences not only their future decisions but those of others, as customers now share experiences freely – especially bad ones.

Creating seamless, valuable, enjoyable experiences and service excellence for customers, whether they deal with you or partners, is a vital ingredient of success in a competitive world. It means creating transparent platforms which allow you and partners to deliver experiences collaboratively.

Securing your future

Manufacturers can secure their future by delivering products that customers want and consistently delighting them across all customer touch points - from the sales process, to customer service, to upsell and cross-sell - all with the goal of delighting that customer so that, when the time is right, they are excited to do business with you again. The future rests on redefining the goal of manufacturing around customer success, not product sales – something Forbes cited as a top ten customer service trend for 2017.

Connected products, supported by predictive customer service that anticipates customer needs, will require the right systems in place that can simplify mountains of complex, siloed data. Having a single view of the customer that is available to all employees will enhance those employees' ability to deliver great customer experiences, as well as enable you to plan differently and innovate around customer needs. Having this complete customer view requires implementing seamless ways to manage customer interaction and engagement, as well as having access to the tools to analyze business and customer data to drive smarter decisions.

The manufacturing sector is in the midst of a rapid change. For some this will present the opportunity to innovate and create new value – but, for those who fail to adapt or recognize the fundamental changes, it will present significant risks. Taking a whole-company approach to create customer centricity means connecting employees to each other, as well as to customers, linking back and front offices, and eliminating data silos. It means embracing your complex partner ecosystem and providing them with platforms that enable collaboration around the customer so that they too can deliver amazing customer service and experiences.

Adapting for the future of manufacturing is about creating agility and insight to drive success for everyone – and Salesforce has been enabling customer success since its inception. We have already helped thousands of companies connect to their own customers in a whole new way and drive more customer success.

A great place for manufacturers to begin their transformation is with their sales organisation. Download our e-book to read more about how Salesforce solutions can help manufacturing companies to success in the Age of the Customer and deliver personalized customer engagement at scale.

This post was originally published on the Salesforce U.K. Blog.