Staying Competitive In A Customer-Centric World

I stopped asking my students to write essays years ago. When I required them, I was shocked to find nearly half of the papers had been plagiarized!

These young college undergrads, studying entrepreneurship, could not understand why copying text from a Google search and pasting it into a paper as your own is wrong. I was so put off I decided simply to never ask students to write papers again. Excel models, survey results, analyses--yes. But anything that might tempt them to copy others’ work--no.

Now I fear I may be wrong. 

My perspective may be outdated. Am I falling behind?

What prompted my self-doubt was a call I had recently with Louis Têtu, the CEO of a fascinating tech company called Coveo. Têtu explained the common misconception that knowledge is information when actually, he argues, knowledge is is the “human capacity to take action facing uncertainty.”

I know this sounds like a philosopher’s ramblings, but stick with me. Let me tell you why you want to listen to what Têtu has to say.

First, Têtu is not a philosopher; he is an entrepreneur. Before joining Coveo, Têtu founded and was CEO and chairman of Taleo Corporation [NASDAQ: TLEO], now the largest global provider of software as a service (SaaS) for human capital management. In 2004, Taleo was recognized as the 11th fastest growing tech company in the U.S. within the Deloitte Technology Fast 500. Today the company has a market cap of $1.6 billion and is growing by more than 20% per year.

Second, Têtu’s view of knowledge has important implications for your company and your career. In the old world, what mattered was the information you stored in your head. Our academic grades were based on whether we could accurately regurgitate in an exam what we were told in class. But today, with knowledge universally and instantaneously accessible, your ability to remember facts gives you no advantage over the person sitting in the next cubicle.

What matters is your “ability to bridge the gap between your current knowledge and knowledge needed to take action.” In other words, when you face a problem at work, how quickly and efficiently can you find and use the knowledge you need to solve it?

Layer onto this that, in Têtu’s opinion, the world is moving “180 degrees away from Henry Ford’s” product-centric business model to a customer-centric one, and we start to see the immense power of being able to find the right information quickly. In a product-centric world, you could take weeks and months to research. In a customer-centric world, you only get a minute, even less if the customer on the other end of the phone is frustrated.

Your company’s competitiveness increasing depends on your people’s ability to rapidly find and consolidate the information they need to take action. John Boyd, a fighter pilot and, I believe, our most overlooked modern-day strategic genius, pointed out that a fighter pilot must have the ability to synthesize many pieces of disparate data more quickly than the enemy.

Your company is like a jet fighter. The more quickly your people can mash together the information they need to make good decisions, the more competitive you will be.

Coveo helps companies do this by assembling together a mashable unified index of both external and internal information. Their software crawls through your SAP or other enterprise systems, but also through Twitter and other external sources, and puts everything in one place.

That way when your customer next calls, your customer service representative will know instantly if they have called before, how regularly they pay their bills, whether they have visited an external chat room to solve their problem, and whether they have shared anything on Twitter about their issue. By having a fuller picture of the customer, they can make more intelligent choices about how to serve them. And the Coveo solution seems to be working, judging by clients who are signing up, including Lockheed Martin, PepsiCo, and Verizon.

Coveo is one of a breed of companies I am coming across that is ushering in a new, faster-paced, more fluid, information-based form of competition. They key to making the pieces work together is to arm your people with the knowledge they need to help you win.

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[Image: Flickr user Spreng Ben]

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