(As originally published on LinkedIn, 15 March 2017)

Agility to meet shifting customer demands is entrepreneurs’ edge

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By: Daniel Baer, Partner in EY’s Canadian Assurance Services

It’s official! Nominations for our EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2017 awards are now open and I’m already impressed by the caliber of nominees we’ve seen so far. The business issues and opportunities they’ve embraced are so varied, and I’m never more inspired than when I learn about each nominee’s unique path to success.

Navigating complex paths to growth

Big or small, we know entrepreneur-led businesses face unique challenges because they need to operate in ways that suit their specific growth objectives. But they’re all united in their quest to grow beyond their immediate borders, whether that’s moving from local to regional scope, or an even bigger play to reach a national or global stage.

It’s no surprise that this route to sustained growth is subject to dozens of complex factors that shape each entrepreneur’s unique operating conditions. Charting a path through this tangled landscape can be difficult without a framework to understand these factors in the broader context of a company’s eco-system.

That’s why EY has developed an enabler we call our Growth Navigator, which maps out seven key drivers of growth. It’s a valuable structure for identifying your organization’s strengths and weaknesses — regardless of company size — to determine the best path forward. Making customers the focal point is clearly a key driver.

Customers at the core

For any organization on a growth journey, it’s critical to remember that customers are at the heart of the business. Putting their needs at the centre of your operating strategy may seem obvious, yet it is a fundamental anchor that often gets overlooked in the drive for efficiencies, new partnerships and growth.

Plus, it can be hard to keep up with evolving customer needs amidst fast-changing trends and technologies.

For several years, I’ve been tracking considerable changes in the Retail and Consumer Products sector. The greatest shift has been not simply the sheer pace and scale of change in what consumers want, but also in how they want it.

As a consequence, the business landscape is changing as new competitors emerge to address these unmet consumer needs. And this evolution of what customers want and how they want to get it isn’t limited to retail; my colleagues who work in other sectors are witnessing the growing importance of ‘customer-centricity’, regardless of industry or business size — and the rise of new entrants who are filling the gaps of customer demand.

Agility is a key competitive edge

What’s clear is that the flexibility of entrepreneurial organizations to remain agile and more responsive to this kind of change is a critical competitive edge. And the ability to anticipate and adapt to fast-changing consumer demands has material implications along the entire business and value chain.

To get a sense of what these implications might be, let’s look at the retail sector in particular. In our recent report One tough customer, EY explored the changing needs of retail consumers, in part to identify where Gen Z (those born into technology) demands overlap with those of millennials (the generation who grew up with technology). It’s a fascinating snapshot of a change in process.

Striving for experience

Among the many factors shaping the consumer landscape, one stands out in particular: the shift of customer focus from ‘product’ to ‘experience’ as the driver of loyalty and business growth. In part, this shift is fueled by the rise of digital, especially with the advent of mobile buying capabilities.

Just think about it: today’s consumers can purchase nearly anything they want, at any time. This means that the key differentiator now is the experience they have in shopping, buying and the activities that follow. Those personal, customized experiences that uniquely maximize all touch points are the basis for building trust and customer loyalty. Unfortunately, it’s also where many of today’s retailers continue to fall short.

The new normal

Interestingly, this notion of customized value and a responsive experience is equally applicable to manufacturing, business-to-business and more. The most successful companies will be those that anticipate customer needs and can deliver responsively, intuitively and seamlessly across platforms.

Here lies the big opportunity for entrepreneurial organizations who are smaller, nimbler and less risk-averse. Those prepared to challenge conventional thinking about customers will move quickly to fill the demand.

At the end of the day, it’s not about finding that “silver bullet” in customer service, but rather in developing the strategies that will allow for continuous and excellent consumer experiences. It’s about assessing and evolving what is into what can be.

The ultimate winners will be those who make customer-driven innovation a key part of their company’s culture in order to drive sustained growth.

We want to hear from you

I am certain we’ll see several examples of this commitment to customer centric business models among the nominees for the 2017 Entrepreneur Of The Year awards. Nominations are now open, so please don’t hesitate to contact me if you know a deserving entrepreneur.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you think. What shifts in customer-or-consumer needs are you seeing? And how are these changes affecting your business?