The last few weeks leading to Diwali were very hectic, but in a good way! The festivities meant a number of fun gatherings with family and friends, good food, games and lots of chitchat. However, the one constant dampener was the question related to our under-construction house. Almost everyone we met, asked us if it will be ready by this year end as the original plan was to shift back before Diwali. The contactor has revised the deadline several times but has failed to deliver. The only silver lining to this dark cloud is that I have learnt so much about constructing a house that I can take up this up as an alternative profession!
After all the festival buzz died down, we got time to introspect about the steps that we could have taken to avoid being in this situation. And I remembered that we had done thorough research on the available options and then chosen the one with the least negative feedback. But choosing a contractor in India still involves choosing the lesser of the evils. However, the construction industry is one of the last bastions of sales people who make false promises and don’t deliver. Much has changed in favour of the buyer in the last two decades, especially since the digital revolution.
Digital connectivity has changed the way we buy and consume goods and services and has provided immense power in the hands of the consumers. In the past, sellers could use information asymmetry to their advantage. There were limited options to get credible information about a company, its products or services. However, today’s networked consumers have ample opportunities to get credible information. Think of any purchase of a significant value that you may have made in the recent past, chances are that before making the actual purchase, you had all the information you needed. Consider the process you followed and compare it with a similar purchase done twenty years ago, when sources of information were limited and so were the networks (no social media!). The purchasers would try and find out if anyone had bought the product among her/his friend circle and talk to them to get feedback. They would try and get some brochures to compare features and then go to their trusted shop for the purchase. The shopkeeper was an important influencer and the final decision about the brand would heavily depend on his word. It was assumed that he had substantially more information than the purchaser and hence the shopkeeper’s advice was very important. He would often say things like, “I know this company is investing a lot in after sales service and as you are our loyal customer I am sharing this information only with you. Trust me, go for Brand X.” The probability that one would go with the shopkeeper’s advice was very high. And if one was unhappy with the purchase there were very limited options to vent or share one’s unpleasant experience.
Contrast this to how we shop today! Let me share with you a recent example of the process I followed for purchasing a couple of air purifiers. I started with a search on Google about best air purifiers available in India and the technology used. I had a list of brands that I could consider. As I had to buy more than one, I narrowed my search by using ‘cost’ as a filter. I then spoke to a few friends who had bought air purifiers in the past to check about their experiences. Once I had that data, I further narrowed down my shortlist to two just brands. I went back online and read through a number of customer reviews, especially on after sales service and cost of replacing the air filters. As I still had a few doubts, I spoke to few more people who were connected to me on social media and had also recently bought air purifiers. By the time I finished this process, I had already decided on which brand and model I wanted to buy. Now the only decision left was either to buy it online or go physically to a store to make the purchase. As I was pretty sure about my decision, I made the purchase online.
The collective experience of several hundreds of people is available to today’s networked consumers. And it is very convenient – it is just few clicks or phone calls away. Experts call this the power of Network Intelligence. This intelligence has shifted the balance of power from the seller to the buyer. And the role of the sales person has reduced drastically, especially it is no more about trying to sell you something. If he/she tries to do that, people will just run away as more often than not, the buyer already has as much or more information as the salesperson. The salesperson’s role has changed to be more of a facilitator. The chances that the buyer could be tricked to purchase a particular brand have reduced drastically. This change, which now seems like second nature, has widespread implications for the marketing and communications business – from how we pitch stories to journalists, to how we behave in job interviews, to what messages we use in digital advertising, to how we train the sales force, to how we media train the CXOs, to the collaterals we create and so on.
I will try and cover the implications in the weeks ahead but till that time rejoice in the fact that we are living in the age of ‘Sellers Beware’ and not ‘Buyers Beware’.