In most cases, every customer is already empowered. They can choose whether or not to do business with you. In some cases, as in the case of a monopoly holding, a company may not have a choice about whether to do business with you. For example, any business operating in the late 90s would have had to think long and hard without giving some money to Microsoft as their monopoly hold on the market was such that there were few realistic options. These days almost the opposite is true – giving money to Microsoft, especially considering their hash of a release of Windows Vista – is considered a sign of poor judgement. Yes, there are some businesses who will always depend on them, but for a greenfield site it’s not so clear. The writing was on the wall in 2002 when the Alpha Geeks started to move to Mac OS X, now that transition is almost complete. If you’re not running Mac OS X or Linux then you deserve a funny look. (Why do I lump Linux in there? Consider the Nokia N-series of Internet Tablets, the Chumby, the ASUS eee PC).
If you have customers you can then empower them further by giving them choices. Allow them to tailor your offering to their needs. Give them visibility of the options.
This is something we are developing currently for Mac-Sys. Customers will be able to look at their current status for every piece of work. They will be able to add hours, remove features, request additional support, change the terms of the contract and also view trends in their support needs so they can better estimate their IT budget for the coming year. Mac-Sys had previously tried to do this using open source software but nothing managed to fulfill the specific needs of their business. As a result, they brought in software developers to provide what they could not.
This sort of empowerment begs the question about why so many company web sites are so opaque. Okay – the Infurious web site is nothing to write home about because it’s currently being developed but we maintain a degree of transparency through the blog and through our dealings with contract clients.
That said, don’t just provide choices and think you are empowering the customer. Too much choice can be a much worse thing than too little – consider the problems Microsoft has experienced with the various SKUs and price points of Vista. In comparison, the XP Home and XP Pro SKUs were just about right. Separating these into six different products just meant they confused and segregated their market.
Pay attention to the desires of the people paying you more money. They’re valuing your services higher than others and don’t be afraid to go the extra yard for them. One client of ours told me last year that they deal with several very large companies as suppliers. Their own company is huge as well and the paperwork to get something simple done is often prohibitive. Therefore their client manager asks them to do it and charge it to them, with a premium, in their normal bill. The big client is happy. The smaller supplier has a little extra work to do but gets rewarded for it and at the same time builds a better relationship with the bigger company.
About the worst thing you can say to a good client is: No, we don’t do that.