Consider the following scenario: It’s a hot summer day and a prospective customer walks into your store to buy an air conditioner. He evaluates several models and then buys one — but not from you. It turns out your competitor located two miles away is offering the same model at a 20% discount. How did he know this? He scanned the product's bar code using the RedLaser app on his iPhone, which displayed several local retailers with lower prices than yours. If he had been willing to wait three days for shipping, he could have purchased the exact same model while standing in your store from an online retailer at a 30% discount.

This type of technology-fueled disruption is affecting all industries, not just retailers. Since the early 1900s, businesses relied on competitive barriers such as manufacturing strength, distribution power, and information mastery. But this is all changing in the age of the customer, where empowered buyers have information at their fingertips to check a price, read a product review, or ask for advice from a friend right from the screen of their smartphone.

To compete in the age of the customer, your business must become customer-obsessed. As Forrester’s Josh Bernoff (@jbernoff), SVP of Idea Development and author of Groundswell and Empowered, advocates in his latest research: “The only source of competitive advantage is the one that can survive technology-fueled disruption — an obsession with understanding, delighting, connecting with, and serving customers.”

To become customer-obsessed, Forrester advocates investment in the following four areas: 1) Real-time customer intelligence; 2) customer experience and customer service; 3) sales channels that deliver customer intelligence; and 4) useful content and interactive marketing. CIO’s should understand which priorities are most important to their business and adjust technology plans and budgets to support these priorities.

So my question to all of you CIOs and IT strategists: What people, process, and technology investments will you make to win in the age of the customer?

Seriously, your input would be greatly appreciated… My colleague, Sean Corcoran (@SeanCor), and I are co-facilitating a session on “Using Disruptive Technologies To Innovate Around The Customer Life Cycle” at Forrester’s CIO-CMO Forum 2011 in Boston on September 22. Attendees will be presented with a case study-based challenge on how to boost customer engagement to drive sales — and then collaborate with one another to determine the key disruptive technologies to consider, justify the business case, and how to balance this with real-world constraints.

Thank you in advance and I look forward to your thoughts.

Doug (@dougwashburn

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