It’s a stark reality that 50% of S&P 500 firms will be replaced within the next ten years; this is due in large part to a failure to adopt new technologies that are transforming the customer experience. In 1965, companies used to spend an average of 33 years on the list. That’s forecast to drop to 14 years by 2026. So, if there’s ever been a time to invest in digital transformation, it’s now!
Manufacturers that rely heavily on high-touch sales and account management teams are particularly susceptible to this trend. Industry 4.0 is ushering in a new wave of technologies that manufacturers can use to enrich experiences for their customers and channel partners. We take a close look at each of these technologies, so you can make a better-informed decision about where your business should invest.
Industry 4.0: A Brief Recap
The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) represents a global seismic shift away from a world powered by machines with human operators run on fossil fuels, to a new world powered by technology, run on precious data.
Industry 4.0 is the subset of digital transformation that pertains to manufacturing – the blending of traditional manufacturing practices with new technologies, supercharging performance with lower costs, improved safety, higher efficiency, better customer retention, and a giant leap forward in terms of quality and consistency.
The Information Value Loop (IVL) (this is worth a read) is the real magic of Industry 4.0 – a physical-to-digital-to-physical loop of action and informed reaction, where high-quality sensors, powerful networks, high-performance computing, robotics, AI and AR combine to create unprecedented value from information.
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The Technologies You Can Use to Supercharge Customer Experience
1. B2B eCommerce
B2B eCommerce is simply the sale of goods and services, business-to-business, through a website, and it’s fast replacing the old-school, high-touch sales teams of the past. Forrester forecasts that US B2B eCommerce will reach $1.8 trillion and account for 17% of all B2B sales in the US by 2023. And, with 89% of B2B buyers using online resources to research purchases, conducting an average of 12 searches before engaging on a specific brand’s site, no manufacturer can afford to stand idly by as customers bypass them on the way to competitors that offer a superior online experience.
This isn’t to say you should do away with the sales department altogether. But, by automating the bulk of cookie-cutter transactions, a stripped-down sales team can focus on higher-value, personalized, and more unpredictable customers and deals.
2. B2B2C and Visual Product Configuration
Often confused with B2B eCommerce, B2B2C is a brand new business model that’s surfaced in the wake of industry 4.0. With B2B2C, a manufacturer uses another business as an intermediary, directly interacting with its customers, under its own brand, keeping all the data that results from every transaction.
To illustrate the idea, let’s use one of our customers, Tuff Shed, as an example, which sells its sheds through Home Depot. Rather than wholesaling its sheds to Home Depot in a traditional B2B relationship, customers access Tuff Shed’s online visual product configurator on iPads located in Home Depot stores. Having designed their ideal shed, the data is automatically sent to Tuff Shed’s manufacturing department, which makes and ships the product.
The immersive, 3D configurator carries the Tuff-Shed branding and logo, so customers know that they are dealing with Tuff Shed direct, and all the data is retained by Tuff Shed to keep and use. Tuff Shed benefits from the bulk acquisition of customers at an incredibly low cost, and Home Depot takes a cut from every sale without getting their hands dirty. It’s a real win-win.
3. AI (Artificial Intelligence) and Machine Learning
Manufacturers can overhaul their customer service systems with the help of AI, increasing satisfaction and retention. We’re not talking about Clippy; we’re talking about highly intelligent ‘conversation agents’ (aka chatbots) that combine machine learning with a continuous stream of data to serve your customers better than ever before. The rate of improvement in this space is so rapid that Gartner forecasts that by 2022, 70% of white-collar workers will interact with conversational platforms daily.
This new generation of chatbots monitors each customer’s habits, learning their preferences and predicting their behavior. Combined with in-depth product knowledge and detailed order history, the chatbots can provide a rich, personalized service without ever leaving your customer “on hold.”
4. VR (Virtual Reality)
Dragging customers into your showroom can be tricky at the best of times, and if you’re situated on opposite sides of the world, it can be nigh on impossible. Flying all the way to meet is expensive, and flicking through a sales catalog together is entirely uninspiring.
With VR, you can bring your entire showroom into your customer’s office, offering a rich, immersive, and carefully curated experience designed to aid decision-making and boost sales. Customers can view your products up-close and from every angle, try them out in hyper-realistic simulations, and experiment with numerous configurations.
5. RFID (Radio-frequency identification) and GPS
RFID technology provides manufacturers with an invaluable link between their real and digital worlds. RFID tags, which contain a tiny, unique, grain-of-sand-sized transponder, can be affixed to anything from parts, manuals, files, tools, jigs, containers, vehicles, parts, raw materials, work-in-progress, finished inventories, and of course, customer deliveries.
RFID tags (passive ones, at least) have no internal power source or battery, the power instead supplied by the reader, which can be positioned at vital checkpoints throughout its journey, detecting the tag from several feet away. Besides a GPS location, RFID tags can do simple sensing of moisture, temperature, and even applied force.
RFID tags cost pennies but imagine how much better you can serve your customers when inventories are done every 15 minutes, and you can forecast lead times with pinpoint accuracy.
6. IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things)
IIoT is possibly the most exciting arm of Industry 4.0, given its centrality to the Information Value Loop (IVL). IIoT uses a network of sensors that collect critical production data, passing it through cloud software, converting the data into valuable insights about the efficiency of manufacturing operations.
The benefits to the manufacturer are immense, including optimized inventory management, improved safety, failure prediction, reduced machine downtime, higher overall efficiency, faster manufacturing, better shop floor scheduling, and seamless supply chain processes. Manufacturers can then pass these benefits down to customers in the shape of lower costs, shorter lead times, greater customization, and precision forecasting.