When I was in college and working for a parts distributor and sporting a then-stylish mullet, I received a letter from a gentleman who appreciated the customer service I had provided. Two decades later the words of that customer continue to inspire me. In fact, that single letter helped shape my career path. It motivates me to always provide great experiences for others and encourage them to do the same.

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Witnessing the age of the customer. A lot has changed since then. Just think about how that same situation would play out today. Would this customer send a letter? Probably not. Instead, he would write a post on his blog, tweet about it to his followers, comment on the company’s Facebook page or leave a review on Yelp or Google Reviews.

The privacy of that letter is a relic of the past. Social-media platforms are megaphones, and customers are using them to talk about their experiences in highly public and far-reaching ways. A single tweet or YouTube video can be viewed millions of times.

And then there are “astroturfers,” modern-day pirates, who while posing as real customers, skew feedback to both extremes. The largest review sites dedicate tremendous resources toward screening out deceptive posts. Despite those efforts, the practice continues. A recent Harvard Business School study found that about 16 percent of restaurant reviews on Yelp are identified as fraudulent, and other sources have estimated that as many as 30 percent of online reviews to be bogus.

For better and worse, consumers have more power over a brand’s reputation than ever before. Forrester calls this new era the “Age of the Customer,” a 20-year business cycle in which the most successful enterprises will reinvent themselves to systematically understand and serve increasingly powerful customers. To win in this new age, Forrester declares, companies must become customer obsessed and “the only sustainable competitive advantage is knowledge and engagement with customers.”

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Big data comes into play. To make things even more complicated -- and challenging -- the Age of the Customer is colliding with the big data explosion. Companies have become singularly focused on gathering as much data as they can about customers’ buying habits, financial and personal lives, online behavior and more. In the midst of this information acquisition, many lose sight of customers’ best interests, infringing on their privacy and exposing them to security risks.

The companies succeeding in this new age are those putting  pressure on themselves to perform at the highest level for their customers, while also leveraging technology and big data investments to drive operational improvement.

Some companies are doing this by getting ahead of their customers, anticipating their needs and delivering a consistently outstanding experience at every point of contact. To achieve this high standard, many organizations are turning to omni-channel retailing, which seamlessly blends their physical and digital environments to ensure that the customer experience is consistent and positive, whether a consumer chooses to engage on a mobile device, in a physical store or both.

In this amplified environment, companies should build customer-engagement strategies into every level of their businesses, and there are new technologies and services that help them do just that. The best organizations are finding ways to successfully counter even the most virulent fraudsters and engage with even the unhappiest customers, including those who swear they’re never stepping foot in that store again. In tackling these challenges immediately and directly, companies can see real results, whether it's turning grumpy customers into champions or dramatically improving the business' online presence.   

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A customer focus should take center stage. Many organizations are underreacting, though, and some aren’t responding at all, especially when it comes to social platforms. Whether this arises from fear of doing things wrong, a gap in internal knowledge or an experience driving a sense of helplessness or just plain apathy, a number of companies have become passive. But they don’t have to be.

What my company has found is that many customers do have a positive experience with the brands they interact with. But most companies do not have enough information to know this about their own brands and neither do their prospective customers.

This does not have to be the case. In addition to finding and solving problems, good practices and technology can also identify and nurture the emotional connections created by positive encounters. In doing so, companies provide their throngs of happy customers with a platform to speak out, helping build an army of omni-channel brand advocates.

Listening to and truly engaging with customers wherever and however they choose to engage is the new secret to organizational success. While companies may think they’re safe by sitting back and hiding, the opposite is true. By giving the customer a voice, they’re  giving themselves the biggest competitive edge possible. In the Age of the Customer, one thing is for certain: Companies that fail to orient all aspects of their organization around their customers will die. 

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