timerapprox 6 minJuly 2017

Start your day by picking the raisins out of your muesli? Not likely – that’s a thing of the past. These days, customers choose for themselves what ingredients go into their breakfast cereal and what blend of coffee beans is used for their morning caffeine shot. And they’re happy to do so. Having your say is a recipe for customer satisfaction – and an opportunity for the retail market.

Back in the 1980s the shopping experience was hardly something to write home about. Mrs Kramer went to Weber the butcher’s, placed her order and went home. Fast-forward 25 years. Mrs Kramer orders her schnitzel special from the Weber newsletter and has it delivered to her home. And today? She picks out her steak while the cow is still grazing in the field.

It’s digitisation that we have to thank for this. Customers can pre-order their personalised meat package on the online platform kaufnekuh.de. All it takes is one click on the digital cow. When all the cuts have been sold, the cow is slaughtered and the fresh meat delivered to the customers. This is not only sustainable and traceable - it also creates a connection between the consumer and the product even before the latter has become a saleable commodity.

Customers get in on the act

Customer experience colour range

© Dina Belenka/Getty Images

Whereas in the past the customer experience only began with the purchase, nowadays it starts the first time the potential buyer thinks about the product - and this has far-reaching consequences for manufacturers, retailers and customers alike. One company that puts this to good use is mymuesli. Over the past ten years the Passau-based start-up has evolved into an internationally recognised brand with its "mix your own muesli" options. While mymuesli focuses on customisation, for outdoor wear specialist Gore it is the functionality of the product that takes centre stage: for tomorrow’s all-weather jackets they have brought in extreme athletes and climate experts to their development teams. "We used to see consumers as our target audience, but now we consider them to be part of the creative process," explains Gore innovations expert Birgit Schaldecker.

Different as the implementation on the product level may be, the basic premise remains the same: who knows better what the customer wants than the customer themselves? Which is why more and more consumers are putting together their own muesli combinations, voting online on the latest burger variations someone has dreamt up and having heated debates on company forums about the perfect fit for nappies. These products are being created in collaboration with their potential consumers - and this is bringing about sweeping changes to our understanding of the customer experience.

Letting the customer decide

For businesses, this game changer offers huge opportunities. Take, for instance, the guys from fashion label Asket. The key factor in their success so far has been a timeless sweatshirt that was designed on the basis of feedback from more than 300 customers and a series of practical tests on the football field. Even the beta version of this trendy apparel sold out in just half an hour. This is another perfect example of how products that are developed in collaboration with the consumer can have a decisive effect on customers’ trust in the brand. Equally, such products give rise to loyal communities whose members are willing to write positive reviews and become unpaid voluntary associates.

Change today and profit tomorrow

Regardless of whether they are looking to increase brand loyalty, come up with innovative ideas or set themselves apart from the competition, manufacturers should radically rethink their traditional idea of their customer experience. Steve Jobs did this as early as 1997: "You've got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology." What this means is creating an environment in which it is possible to involve customers at the earliest possible stage of product development. Doing so will unlock enormous untapped potential.

For retailers, who until recently have played a virtually indispensable role as intermediaries between the manufacturer and the consumer, the situation is more challenging. The ever-increasing possibilities offered by direct digital marketing will soon force retailers to position themselves as solution providers who no longer merely stock products on their shelves but come up with ways to improve on them based on actual customer needs. This could be done with the help of digital services that provide a real added value in the interplay between the consumer and the product. One example could be a traceability system that provides concrete details of the origin and processing of products. And what does all of this mean for Mrs Kramer and the other consumers? First and foremost they will have more opportunities for participation as well as new feedback channels. They can also look forward to innovative products that increasingly cater to the needs of the individual consumer.