by Randy Pennington

What makes – and keeps – your company relevant?

Jul 24, 2019
IT Strategy Technology Industry

Your customers, both external and internal, are asking: Why you? Why now? What makes you relevant? More important, they will ask the same question every day into the future. Remaining relevant is your biggest challenge for long-term success. Find out what it means and how you accomplish it.

number 5 on yellow grunge background top five
Credit: Getty Images

When was the last time you answered these three questions from the perspective of your client or customer: Why you? Why now? What makes you relevant?

Better yet, when was the last time that you asked them for their candid feedback?

It’s important to ask on a regular basis because your customers are doing so every day.

Admittedly, people and companies that sell technology products and services go through this exercise more often. They are always trying to define and refine their Unique Selling Proposition (USP).

Understanding your relevance is limited to external customers, however. Your internal customers are asking. A client in a large government agency once called to tell me that 30 percent of his department was being laid off and the internal support service they provided was being outsourced. As he lamented the loss he said, “The change is ultimately a good decision. The sad part is that we could have done all of them ourselves. We just didn’t look at it from our customers’ perspective.”

What it means to be relevant

Steve Martin always responds with the same answer when asked about making it in show business: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

That’s a great answer, but it depends on how you define “making it.”

If making it means being famous, talent isn’t a requirement these days. William Hung landed a record deal and saw his cover of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” top 2 million You Tube views. That’s quite a return from an American Idol audition that redefines the word “bad.”

Using Hung’s example, relevance means being remarkable, right?

Not really. You might use the words interesting or amusing. The only way to classify him as relevant is if the question is, “How can I get a cheap laugh at someone else’s expense?”

Why defining relevance is difficult

If this feels a little squishy and slightly irrelevant, you have identified the problem. Relevance is relative. Creating a concise definition is like nailing Jell-O to the wall.

Customers determine your relevance by weighing factors that are both tangible and intangible. Sometimes it can even be a situational blend of the two.

Service level agreements are largely tangible indicators. Your performance either meets agreed upon expectations or it doesn’t. Then again, meeting those agreements doesn’t necessarily make you relevant to those you support.

A CIO client recently confided that morale on the App Development Team had recently taken a hit when it was labeled irrelevant by one of her C-Suite colleagues. The team prided itself on meeting all of the tangible and agreed upon requirements. The customer, on the other hand, determined relevance and justified the need to bring in an outside resource based on an intangible feeling that the internal group wasn’t in tune with what he needed.

Seemingly tangible factors such as product quality, providing needed features, and lower cost don’t ensure relevance either. How many people do you know that pay for the latest smart phone upgrade even though they don’t need or use all of the features? Status and reputation are considerations for relevance, too.

Why relevance matters

In 1965, publicly-traded companies maintained a spot on the S&P 500 list for an average of 30 years. By 1990, the number had dropped to 20 years. The average length of time on the S&P 500 list is projected to drop to 12years by 2027.

Presence on the S&P isn’t the only measure of a company’s success, but it is still considered to be the best indicator of how large U.S. stocks perform. It proves that creative destruction is alive and well.

It continues to happen in IT as well.

The 2018 Deloitte Outsourcing Survey highlights an important change in how companies are looking at relevance. The ability to implement disruptive technology that provides a competitive advantage is now the number one factor in outsourcing decisions. Cost reduction, a historically high factor, no longer even ranks in the top five.

You are likely to become irrelevant long before it becomes obsolete. Does that frustrate or even scare you? It should.

How you remain relevant

Remaining relevant is about continuing to be your customers’ choice year after year. It is that special form of success that has Steve Martin continuing to star in films and sell out venues for his comedy and music over 45 years after making his first appearance on The Tonight Show. It is why Martin is still considered relevant when many of his talented contemporaries and William Hung have slipped into obscurity.

Here are five ideas to keep you and your team so relevant that you are impossible to forget.

1. Watch for the signs of impending irrelevance

Irrelevance in your operation means that you cease to matter or be important based on the criteria by which your customers evaluate your contribution.

No one intends to become irrelevant. No single event can render them obsolete. More often it is a slow death that is easy to miss unless you are watching. Here are a few of the symptoms:

  • Being forced to compete on price even if you are not in a commodity market
  • Lack of customer engagement
  • Comments or complaints that your business is isolated from current realities
  • Your actions no longer matter to competitors
  • Inability to attract and keep top talent
  • Flat or declining revenue when everyone else is growing
  • The only things that are new in your product or service offering are the words you use to describe what you have been doing for years
  • Decisions for the future are influenced exclusively by what worked in the past

2. Tell yourself the truth about how relevant you really are today

Elastic Path’s Sci-Fi Shopper research provides a picture of what customers want in a retail experience of the future. A crucial finding is that 57% of customers don’t think companies are doing enough to give them the futuristic experiences they want. More disturbing, those same customers rated companies as a 4 on a 1-10 scale at creating the experiences they want. On the other hand, companies rated themselves as a solid 7.

Extrapolating this outward, it is easy to assume that the factors that were important in the past remain so today. The reality is that past success only proves that you used to be relevant.

Delivering on today’s expectations is the minimum for remaining relevant. Are you sure that the solution you are providing is the one your customers want?

3. Make my life easier today

Darin Archer, Elastic Path’s Chief Strategy Officer, told me that companies tend to chase bright shiny objects such as virtual reality as a difference maker with their customers. Internal customers are no different. More than one CIO has admitted their fear of someone browsing a trade show floor at the end of the year with money left in their budget.

Customers, on the other hand, want someone to make their lives easier. Virtual reality will be cool in the future, but today, your external customers want you to it possible to pay you without carrying a purse or wallet. Likewise, your internal customers want your team to be focused on solutions that make it easier to get their work done right now. It is up to you to keep the focus on what’s important to the customer rather than allowing the organization to chase the bright shiny object.

4. Break down your silos to provide a seamless solution

The customer, according to Elastic Path’s research, doesn’t care about your organization chart or division of duties. The last thing they want to hear is someone saying, “This isn’t my department” or “I can refer this on to the group that handles that.”

It isn’t enough to be responsive within a department. The customer expects you to be nimble across departments.

The operational challenges of expanding this idea to its most customer-relevant outcome are daunting. You have to minimize the loss of efficiency that specialization provides. Metrics for success can be different across functional groups. In many cases, providing customers with the seamless experience they want has an impact on bonuses. Then there is the reality that functional managers can be in competition for promotions as the opportunities for advancement diminish.

Leaders have been talking about the need to break down silos for years. If this was easy, you would have done it by now. Get ready to take teamwork to a new level and potentially change how your organization looks and acts.

5. Make the experience more engaging

Research by Walker, a customer experience consulting firm, suggests that by the end of next year your customer’s experience will be more important than the product or service in a decision to do business with you. Taken to a logical conclusion, your internal customers will expect an enhanced experience, too. So will your current and prospective employees as they decide to come (or remain) at work with you.

Those experiences will need to be faster, better, cheaper, and friendlier to capture and keep their attention.

Scott McKain, author of the book What Customers Really Want, says that companies often confuse providing customer service with creating a compelling experience. He offers that the most engaging experiences have a personal focus, show reciprocal loyalty, and are constantly innovating to create greater connection.

Remaining relevant is the challenge we face as organizations and individuals in a world that moves at hyper speed. The adage “What have you done for me lately” has been replaced with “What have you done for me today.”

You can’t rest on your laurels. What changes do you need to make today in order to remain relevant tomorrow?