Technology is making consumers’ lives easier every day. Not only is it helping retailers stay in touch with customers but it’s predicting what they’ll want next, too


In March, the South African Customer Satisfaction Index (SAcsi) released its report on SA’s banking industry. On the surface, the results were interesting enough. Capitec (81.5/100) ranked highest, Absa lowest (72.4) and the sector as a whole did relatively well (75.6, compared to the US’ 77.0 and the UK’s 72.0). The real fun, however, lay in the details.

According to the survey, Capitec customers rated their ATM experience at 3.8 points below the industry mean of 78.3, but graded their experience in the bank’s branches at 7.9% above the industry average. Nedbank customers, meanwhile, rated their ATM experience at 3.7 points below the industry average while their experience of the bank’s mobile app was 4.3 points above the norm.

As those numbers indicate, a person’s experience of a bank (or any brand or company, for that matter) can be great in ‘real life’ but awful in the virtual world – or vice versa. Even if you’re better than your competitors in one environment, you could still lose your customers if you let them down in another.

‘Consumers have so many options nowadays, which means factors such as best pricing or best selection are not enough to differentiate the offering,’ says Craig Perry, head of sales at DMX Africa, an integrated provider of in-store customer experience solutions. ‘It’s absolutely necessary to build stronger connections with customers because if you are not able to create a reason for them to come into your store, they will simply purchase the product online instead.’

And that’s if you’re lucky. SA consumers are a fickle bunch. In April this year, global consulting firm Accenture published research showing that 76% of SA consumers had switched one of their service providers in the past year due to poor customer service –with 88% saying those firms could have done something different to prevent them leaving.

So what if your company could harness technology to not only keep in touch with your customers’ wants but also anticipate changing trends? What if you could collect, process and interpret customer-specific data to see trends as they emerge – and act on them? What if you could use technology to develop more efficient delivery channels? What if you could use the massive inter-connectivity of social media and enterprise communication to give customers what they want – and keep them from moving on to one of your competitors?

A handful of forward-thinking SA companies are achieving exactly that. BMi Research, for example, is helping clients engage with their customers by looking them straight in the eye. Literally. The company recently added eye-tracking to its list of customer-research methodologies, using specially developed eye-track glasses to monitor and report on the wearer’s natural eye movements in different scenarios. These could include field scenarios (like Saturday morning grocery shopping) or controlled scenarios (such as assessing new packaging options).

This allows them to pinpoint the exact physical features that consumers look at or are attracted to when they make purchasing decisions. It also gives them a dynamic view of how shoppers navigate supermarket aisles, and reveals what catches their attention and what they ignore in the retail environment.

‘Our clients are increasingly demanding deeper consumer insights,’ says Gareth Pearson, BMi Research CEO. ‘Facts and figures are great, but marketers want to know what consumers really think about their brands. What turns them on, what sends them running, and at what exact point did they make the emotional connection with the brand that prompted them to put the product in their trolley. These are the kinds of insights we can now offer, which perfectly complement our existing consumer-research tools.’

There’s a tremendous power in seeing life through the consumer’s eyes. The current explosion in data technology is not only making that possible – it’s pretty much becoming a business imperative.

‘The challenge to bear in mind is that people want to speak to the brand using a myriad of channels’


Quinton Pienaar, CEO of Agilitude, Africa’s first reseller, points to a Customers 2020 report, which predicts that customer experience will soon overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator. ‘This means that businesses have to start now to embed a customer-centric methodology into [their] overall approach if they want to succeed,’ he says. 

‘Cloud, mobile big data and most recently the Internet of Things have dramatically impacted both technology and customer service with its rapid evolution. The continued growth and adoption of these trends is significantly changing the way we interact, and what this means is that customers will continue to evolve and mature, having many more avenues to find the service they want.’

While this could be regarded as a potential threat, Pienaar sees it a very big opportunity. ‘[Now is the time] for customers to pursue a customer-centric culture,’ he says. ‘By creating value out of the data and proactively defining the desired needs of the customer, a business is more likely to succeed.

‘Today’s technology allows customer-facing teams to create and deploy customer journeys based on rich customer insights. This results in a one-to-one customer connection and creates closer, long-lasting relationships with customers.’

Claire Cobbledick, Gumtree South Africa’s head of marketing, warns that while technology may be a great enabler, it doesn’t replace the human element. ‘Technological wizardry only gets you so far,’ she says.

‘The people behind the PCs need to understand local culture, they need to empathise with customers on the other end of the conversation, and they need to understand how people prefer to communicate.’

Gumtree is acutely aware of this, given that it is managed and operated locally, but owned and supported by US e-commerce giants eBay. ‘Whilst we are growing locally, we still have a customer service component supporting the site from the United States and Canada,’ says Cobbledick.

‘There are various roles involved, from ad moderators to email and live-chat support agents, and full-time filter-management specialists. All of this requires sophisticated customer-relation management technology, integrated with our platform – which receives up to 2.5 million ads a month, and nine million visitors. It’s a lot of customers to manage, and technology supports us with that goal.

‘The challenge to bear in mind is that people want to speak to the brand using a myriad of channels. We have quite sophisticated plug-ins on the site itself, but the conversation often occurs on social media, which is why you need to have teams able to monitor those channels as well.’

As an online classified advertising service, Gumtree has an added advantage in that its content is self-generating. Users upload what they want to see and control their interactions with each other. ‘This makes customer service even more crucial to our success,’ says Cobbledick. ‘We have the benefit of spotting trends and requests as they emerge, and can gauge quite easily if we need to adapt the site.’

An example of this came recently when Gumtree refocused their efforts to connect job seekers with employment opportunities. ‘It wouldn’t have been a strategy we would have naturally followed, had we not been engaged in a two-way conversation with our customers,’ says Cobbledick.

‘We were busy with a number of exciting campaigns but noticed that no matter what we posted or put out there, a number of people would respond by saying they are desperately looking for work and can we assist – even in irrelevant places.

‘Rather than get frustrated that customers weren’t following the route we wanted them to follow, we asked them how we could help. We refocused on our jobs section and redirected people to the places they needed to go to.

‘You don’t always hear what you want to hear when you have that conversation with customers but, if you listen, the rewards are great. For us, it led us to building a unique job portal with advice, tips and guidelines, and we’ve gotten great feedback.’

With technology becoming both more powerful and easier to use, companies have more and more tools and opportunities to connect with their customers. Some are taking those opportunities and using those tools. Ultimately, those are going to be the companies that survive. Customers know what they want. The question is, do retailers?

By Will Sinclair
Image: Mr.Xerty ©