5 Trends to Watch in 2017

Last year, 2016, is in our rearview mirror, so it’s time to look to the trends in 2017 that will change how we do business: For instance, in my travels around the country to conventions and keynote speech engagements, I've noticed that the faces of the audiences keep getting younger, regardless of the industry.
 
While it’s no secret that millennials have taken over the workforce -- according to Census Bureau data, they are now the largest living group -- how we groom them for leadership is a test many of us will face in 2017.  Sure enough, a Bersin by Deloitte report has predicted that 2017 will be a disruptive year, during which more than three million company chiefs are set to retire, leaving those jobs wide open for up-and-coming young professionals.
 
So, here’s my advice: Plan ahead. Give your young employees the tools to be leaders now. Don’t wait until you have a void to fill to train them. That’s valuable time you'll be wasting; and, in business, wasted time is hardly a valued commodity.
 
Here are five more trends that will be making a splash in 2017.
 
1. Elevated customer engagement
We have already seen a shift on how brands engage customers -- in person and digitally. Customer engagement will continue to dominate as merchants move to a more digital-based business model. Relationships matter, and we have forgotten that intimacy can exist in a digital environment through data, responses and personalization.
 
Customers want brands to become experts on them and to be treated as though they matter -- which they do. Already, some retailers are delving into personalized services; for example, Nordstrom is offering fashion advice; and home improvement stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot have instructional sessions.
 
If companies show that they're personalizing their experiences, rather than just selling something, those actions will build trust, curate the quality of the product and deliver value.
 
Takeaway: Understand that the process is always about the customer, never about the salesperson, the brand or the store. This should be a rule, never the exception.
 
2. Customer data collection
How do you help people become more productive? Give them a higher level of service. To do that, study what customers consume and how they consume it, and use that information to give them what they want. Sounds simple enough, but not everyone has learned this lesson.
 
Brands have always collected data on their customers but are only now learning to use it to their advantage. The Internet of Things (IoT) is one way to increase customer engagement and provide brands a way to build stronger relationships. Loyalty programs provide multiple points of interaction through objects already available in our environment.
 
These programs have the ability to help companies make decisions based on large amounts of customer data from a wide variety of channels; this data provides consumers personalized and real-time/live answers.
 
An example: I almost always fly United and the airline knows my flying habits. Through my customer data, it can personalize my experience and the treatment I receive. The more the airline knows about me, the more amenities it can provide to guarantee I have a comfortable flying experience. So far, the result for me has been a win-win situation.
 
Similarly, every brand, business and organization needs to pay attention to the top 1 percent of their own clientele.
 
Takeaway: Know how to use the data your customers provides you with, and know when (and where) to draw the line. You can have all the data in the world, but if you don’t use it properly, what’s the point of having it?
 
3. Automation
Growing up, I remember watching The Jetsons and wanting a robot like "Rosie" to perform my household chores. In business, chatbots perform a much more important role for companies like Microsoft and Bank of America.
 
Last year, companies began recognizing the advantages and limitations of chatbots for customer engagement. But more is coming to that space: As LiveWorld chairman and CEO Peter Friedman predicts, “In 2017, brands will strategically and seamlessly integrate humans into chatbot interactions to scale and advance the effectiveness of their chatbot programs.”
 
The infusion of voice-based technology into consumer products, and the ways in which brands are shifting from social media to social messaging strategies were the subject I addressed with Epsilon Chief Digital Officer Tom Edwards, during a recent interview. Edwards told me how “disruption is the new normal” and how chatbots are the next thing chief marketing officers will have to deal with as technologies keep evolving.
 
Takeaway: Soon, we will begin to see new immersive experiences, like social messaging married to artificial intelligence, and holographic computing; these trends will redefine how marketers connect with consumers.
 
4. Crowdfunding
Crowdfunding isn’t something people think of when talking business. Instead, they associate it with movies, artisan projects and other specialty industries. However, more businesses are using crowdfunding to validate their own products in the market.
 
In fact, crowdfunding raised $34.4 billion in 2015, on pace to surpass venture capital globally by the end of 2016.
 
Using crowdfunding for product validation allows companies to engage and learn from a small, but vocal, user community early in the process. Customers are your best source of information about your product, so what better way to gain valuable insight early on in the process?
 
As a CMO, I've gone on to the floor of a store that sold our products -- not to check on employees, but to ask customers directly what they thought about our products. There, I took in the good, with the bad and even the ugly; and those candid encounters provided me with feedback I never would have had access to had I stayed in my office poring over graphs and projection sheets.
 
Companies like GE Appliances are already capitalizing on this trend. GE launched FirstBuild, a global co-creation community and micro-factory that looks for insights on how to improve the way major home appliances are created, designed and manufactured.
 
Takeaway: Just because something doesn’t fit the mold doesn’t mean it’s not useful to you. Crowdfunding may not be "mainstream" yet, so break the mold. Think outside the box. Your best focus group may be the market itself.
 
5. Specialization
Gone are the days when companies would hire one person to perform numerous tasks. Nowadays, companies are hiring specialists who are assigned to perfect one skill, instead of trying to be proficient in ten. Think about it this way: When you go to the doctor, you want a specific diagnosis that applies solely to you, not one that’s general and ambiguous. It’s the same in business.
 
As consumers, we are averse to generic messages that may not pertain to our specific needs. However, some entrepreneurs remain skeptical about their market segments being too small to address on an individual-by-individual basis. To me, that’s the wrong approach.
 
You can’t rely on a one-size-fits-all approach anymore. Even if your market is small, every single customer should feel as if he or she matters. If they do feel that way, they'll evangelize your brand, in return.
 
Also, tailor your approach specifically to the audience you’re trying to reach. This isn’t about being a people pleaser, either, but about knowing whom you’re targeting, and being strategic about it. Think about what Netflix or Amazon is doing and how they’re constantly delivering content and communication tailored to customers’ preferences.
 
Takeaway: Be laser-focused on what your customers want. The one-size-fits-all approach went away along with mobile strategies and the B-52s. Narrow your focus, hire specialists and give customers what they want.
 
While entrepreneurs should always keep an eye out for emerging technologies and techniques, don’t forget to remember the basics -- cash, sales and good people. Having this solid foundation in place will allow you to focus on the bigger picture and move your business forward.
 
Reprint from Entrepreneur Magazine
 Jeffrey Hayzlett JEFFREY HAYZLETT       
Jeffrey Hayzlett is the author of Think Big, Act Bigger: The Rewards of Being Relentless (Entrepreneur Press, 2015).