The Need for Speed: How Customer Communications Puts Time on Your Side
Donlon, J. P., Chief Executive (U.S.)
The drive to deliver new products and services and to respond to a changing marketplace with the least delay has become business' equivalent of breaking the four-minute mile. Companies that recognize the value of quick response time can achieve astonishing and powerful results even if their product or service is not appreciably different from that of their competitors. Quick response time yields speed and flexibilitysomething for which many customers are willing to pay a premium. It also collapses internal decision cycles. In short, a combination of communication, technology, and organizational flexibility can allow CEOs to make better strategic product and market decisions. Using customer communications intelligently can maximize opportunity. To do so, however, one must be able to gather the right information from the customer, use it to analyze the impact of the challenge at hand, and act on it immediately.
Time, as Einstein pointed out, is relative. For a carmaker or an electric utility, time to market is normally measured in years. Cosmetics companies may measure rollout in months. Many banks and financial-services companies promise mortgage financing in weeks, and most loans in a single day. But in transportation, retailing, and services, response time is measured in minutes. Long lines, for example, are the bane of air travelers' existence-and a constant source of complaint. British Airways needed to shorten its check-in time and speed up cargo delivery. Using hand-held computers and wireless data devices, desk agents now can confirm reservation status, assign seats, process baggage, and even issue boarding passes on the spot to priority passengers waiting on line. By liberating priority passengers from long waits, the carrier has boosted its priority business 6 percent a year. BA also uses the technology to expedite fuel and cargo loading and to monitor maintenance and repair.
Instant communications technology also came to the rescue for Pepsi-Allied and Pepsi Pensauken Bottlers in managing their delivery and stocking of orders of Pepsi, Schweppes, Dr. Pepper, and Evian to food chains in 35 counties extending across Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York State. Pepsi had been experiencing bottlenecks, frustrating its ability to distribute effectively. Often, many sales reps would call in orders from the field, tying up phone lines and creating delays in the ordering process. (Most orders came in during the afternoon, requiring trucks to be loaded at night.) Using wireless communication, orders now are collected in real time as they occur at the point of sale. As a result, Pepsi has saved up to two hours a day, giving it 25 percent more time to merchandise product at stores and to service more retailers.
In the following roundtable, held in partnership with RAM Mobile Data, CE asked participants how they employ customer communications to improve their ability to add value to their activities. For Physicians Sales & Service, for example, delivering medical supplies on time is critical. Stock shortages require immediate substitutions, and delivery delays demand instant resolution. PS&S equips its hundreds of sales representatives with laptop computers to check inventory levels; calculate prices, profits, and commissions; place orders; and confirm delivery-all at the customer's office. Cobra Electronics' Jerry Kalov pointed out the importance of getting point-of-sale information to a midsize consumer electronics firm competing with giant Japanese and Korean producers. Unfortunately, he says, most retailers "just do inventory control."
Although most companies are attracted to communications technology in order to reduce cost or to speed delivery, the true strategic advantage comes when they can use the instantaneous information to customize one product or service. But to do this, information must be converted to knowledge and followed by action. As PS&S' Patrick Kelly says, "Technology isn't the problem. …