Smartphones are fast becoming the device of choice; 60 million devices were sold in the second quarter of 2010 and Bloomberg predicts that sales may eclipse PC units by 2012.
Touch-screen interfaces, access to email, built-in social networking and a quality browsing experience mean Smartphones are an attractive proposition for anyone who needs to be out of the office most of the day, a necessity for the majority of building materials customers.
The Smartphone is not a new concept – RIM created the standard with Blackberry; a mobile corporate workhorse with access to email and a calendar on the move.
But it is the Apple iOS (iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad) and Google Android platform that have unleashed the newest opportunity for business to connect to their customers – the ‘App’.
Apps are a transformative experience. On the one hand they deliver incredible convenience to users; last weekend I booked a restaurant (Toptable), bought cinema tickets (Cineworld), got bus directions (LondonBus) and checked my Oyster card balance (Oyster £) all from my iPhone in under five minutes.
On the other hand they have the potential to seriously disrupt existing customer marketing channels; this month Amazon integrated barcode scanning into their iPhone app – enabling customers (presumably when they are standing in the store of a competitor like Comet) to scan a product and instantly get the comparative Amazon price. Exciting stuff.
Apps alter how customers want to interact with service providers. They expect their suppliers to deploy innovative ‘Apps’ that support how customers access or use services. Customers will increasingly want to see Apps that add measurable value to their day to day experience -a move from ‘inform me’ to ‘support me’.
To date, most Apps have been focused on consumer brands delivering value to customers in their personal lives but App-savvy businesses are starting to wake up to the fact that their professional customer base are using these same devices at work. For example, Jewson and Wolseley both recently released Apps that help customers do things like locate branches.
As an example Cortexa is developing an App for Viessmann, the German Boiler Manufacturer, which will enable installers to instantly register warranties on site with the customer and use GPS functionality to recommend the nearest approved product or spares stockist. Training materials and live product promotions are planned for later versions.
Apps are king-makers. The low cost of development and distribution of Apps gives anybody in the market an equal chance to connect directly to customers and has the potential to radically alter and disrupt who is control of the customer relationship.
As well as presenting a new opportunity to work with customers, Smartphones and Apps increase the power of social networking by an order of magnitude. There is nothing new about ranting on the web about a company who is either delighting you or failing to meet your expectation; the key change is how quickly Smartphones enable it to be done. Smartphones give customers the tool to either rave or rant instantly, often right at the point where the service isn’t being delivered.
Broadcasting opinion instantly and channelling that reaction into contagious networks such as twitter, linkedin or facebook creates snowballing recommendations for brands who deliver and a PR forest fire for those who don’t.
Smartphones give customers the capability to mobilise and co-ordinate a response about suppliers service in minutes. Smart brands will learn how to use this to their advantage; expect the profession of ‘community manager’ to become a critical staff appointment over the next five years.
If the sales predictions are right over the next two years building materials customers will be increasingly armed with Smartphones, hungry for Apps and ganging up on suppliers through social media to evangelise or exert pressure.
Smartphones and Apps are a new frontier for connecting to customers. They blur the boundaries between performance support and marketing, providing the potential to integrate a supplier into a customer’s daily life and disrupt how existing relationships operate. All bets are off.