Working for Metova, where we partner with companies to guide their digital transformations, I find it’s easy for businesses to get lost in the endless amount of new technologies and trends and wanting to utilize them to increase margins or eke out a bit more profit. But for a real industry-changing transformation, one that will put your company on top and completely disrupt the market, it’s important to utilize tech to accomplish one golden task: Giving your customers what they want.

Whether you are looking at IoT, or AI, or ML or whatever new term has people stirring in your organization, it all starts with customer experience. Understanding what your customers want from you and how they want it is mission-critical. How you solve those problems could be any combination of technology, but it will start with your customers – whoever your customers are – to begin that transformation.

Often, management teams are so focused on the business that they lose sight of what their customers want, and they aren’t sure that their customers are even satisfied with what they are providing. For some, their vision of digital transformation entails a change or modern facelift to their content or website. Other times, businesses focus on steering their customers to utilize their service in the way that the business thinks is best, selling customers what they have rather than what the customers want.

You can try to convince people to behave and consume how you think is best, but if that is your modus operandi, you are ripe to be disrupted. If your customers have started leaving for someone who did listen to their wants, it may be too late to get them back, but you don’t have to give in to losing.

There are countless examples of industries where not putting the customer first opened the door for digital disruption, and I find that the list is growing every day.

Getting A Ride

There was a time when having a taxi business meant either working for one of the big companies or saving for years to purchase your own medallion. While the taxi business enjoyed having a monopoly on customers, it only focused on giving people a ride.

What the industry missed was that technology could enable anyone with a vehicle to become a certified and insured driver — and that customers cared about payment methods, cleanliness, politeness, availability, and timeliness. The taxi business didn’t address those needs, but others did (hello, Uber and Lyft), and that industry will never be the same. It’s been disrupted by technology, but inspired by customer desire.

Video Entertainment

Remember video stores? They were a cultural mainstay, a meeting place. But also a big pain for customers when it came to late fees, rental costs and the uncertainty of availability, having to travel to the store for any of these transactions

Enter Netflix. The company first tackled physical DVDs by providing a nearly limitless selection of movie and TV titles, all delivered through the mail for a monthly fee — and no late fee. Once Netflix captured the unfulfilled consumer market and gave them what they wanted, it went on to further disrupt the industry by providing instant access to movies and TV shows. Today, only a single Blockbuster Video store remains.

Physical Media and Record Stores

The music industry built an empire by selling customers the same content over and over in new mediums (vinyl, 8-track, tape, CDs) and forcing consumers to purchase full-price albums to obtain a song or two. The desire to be able to easily listen to music anywhere once purchased and get the exact songs we liked wasn’t adequately and legally satisfied for some time.

The tech industry eventually responded with the birth of MP3s, iTunes and the like. Not only did the record store brands fall away, but albums also did. Pricing, access, delivery, and consumption all fundamentally changed to meet the needs of the music fans — not the labels or large-scale record behemoths.

Putting Customers First

Especially if you can envision your business as a soon-to-be-disrupted example, it’s time to listen to your customers. Ask them what they want! There are many avenues and tools available to create and administer surveys to your existing customers or to your general target demographic. Create a survey, and ask about their preferences, behaviors, desire to use mobile, connected and emerging technologies, and more.

You also need to talk to the customers you want. If you don’t know what they need, you will struggle to convince them that you can solve their problems. Know what your customers are hiring you for, and be sure you are delivering that to them in the way they expect.

The days of convincing your customers to behave the way you want to help grow your business are over. If you don’t start thinking this way, it may be too late to transform. Whether it’s the internet of things, the connected home, connected cars or mobile-first, an increasing number of industries are making “the leap” — being reborn through digital transformation. In fact, with technology in the home and the continued evolution and ubiquity of smartphones, many traditional companies, some more than 100 years old, are transforming through technology.

The trend continues in 2019, and the way I see it, it is crucial for business survival. Underlining this, CIO reports that the International Data Corporation (IDC) has predicted that “40% of all technology spending will go toward digital transformations, with enterprises spending in excess of $2 trillion by 2019.”

A caveat: While digital transformation is changing our world, there is widespread overuse of the term, pushing it into the realm of meaningless “buzzwords.” Often, rather than transformation, companies are engaging in “optimization.” Digital optimization, or using technology to improve existing operating processes, can refer to employing a new customer relationship manager (CRM), a new website or a simple mobile app. These optimizations may use technology to improve a business, but they don’t fundamentally change the core focus as does a digital transformation.

This being said, there are many businesses facing the inevitability of figuring out how to create a meaningful digital transformation. Without a plan today, they risk being the victim of an Uber or Netflix that can disrupt their entire industry seemingly overnight.

At Metova, we specialize in helping businesses navigate the digital transformation process, and I find that the narrative is common: A business with a proven track record of decades or longer is faced with transforming. The majority of the DNA of the organization makes it operate as it always has, but there are threats on the horizon, and rather than get disrupted, businesses have made it their mission to be the disruptor.

A digital transformation plan is critical. But what are the core elements of a successful leap to digital disruption?

1. Hire Fresh Eyes

Hire a senior visionary with a deep understanding of emerging technologies, or bring in a partner who specializes in shepherding businesses through digital disruption. Structurally, most employees are busy performing their regular tasks, so they may not have the bandwidth or perhaps the perspective to address the challenge of true digital transformation.When working with your “fresh eyes,” if you find yourself saying, “I didn’t know we could do that,” this is a sign you have the right team in place to lead you through digital transformation. To add, if you attempt digital transformation using your existing knowledge, chances are you’re not transforming, but rather optimizing existing procedures.

2. Understand Available and Emerging Technologies

We live in a constant flow of emerging technologies, and it’s important to carefully select tech that addresses your specific challenge — not just the newest “buzzwordy” tech trend. From LoRaWan to 5G, and even artificial intelligence and augmented reality, there is an abundance of new technologies with unique capabilities and limitations.

Your internal or external tech expert can determine if these technologies are the right fit for your company’s unique needs. It’s critical to choose the technological path that solves your problems while creating real value for your company and your customers.

3. Understand Your Customer

Your customers are often more tech-savvy and comfortable using emerging technologies than you may think. Consider focus groups, customer surveys or larger surveys of the general population. Ask your target market about their tech and company interaction ideas and expectations. How do they want to do business with you? What are they missing from you today?

4. Know Your Competition

If your direct competitors are making the leap or a viable new disruptive business model is emerging, it’s not too late — but it dramatically hastens your timeline. Use noncompetitive industries that have been digitally disrupted for inspiration. It doesn’t take a new tech startup to disrupt an industry, but oftentimes, those are the ones taking a fresh, novel approach to the problems being solved.

5. Understand Friction

As ironic as it may seem, often what internally is viewed as a differentiator, such as hands-on customer service or “real live” tech support, is a source of friction for the end customer. Take a look at all business stages and processes, and ask if any could be replaced, streamlined or reinvented through technology. You don’t want to give up on things your customers truly care about, but you don’t want to hang on to things they’ve already moved on from either.

6. Develop A Plan

When batting around transformative ideas, if your team says, “We hadn’t thought of that” or “Is that even possible?” then you’re probably on the right track. Take stock of all necessary components. Have experts in place, and create a timeline for implementation. Build a complete road map, and review it to ensure it meets the needs of your customers, solves your problems and is achievable.

7. Execute On Your Plan

You’ve done your homework. You understand the challenges and have put together a team. Now comes the easy part, right? Nope. It’s just beginning. Understand that there will be a substantial cost, a real business impact and that this will take time and resources. Prepare employees and stakeholders, and make this leap a priority to ensure you don’t stall out before you even get started.

Many businesses will be completely different in a year, and this will likely involve a technology pivot that their industries do not possess today. Coming to this realization and making the decision to leap before it’s required for survival is essential. Being a disruptor is the best way to avoid being disrupted.

Regardless of how you tackle business  challenges, know this: If it isn’t already happening in your company, someone else is potentially building a game-changing, disruptive solution in your industry — and there’s a good chance you don’t even know who they are.