When Things Become Customers

November 05, 2019

Contributor: Christy Pettey

Things as customers pose risks, but they can be managed smartly and ethically

What if your customer’s electric vehicle found the nearest charging station, reserved a spot and then paid your company for it? Or your customer’s dishwasher told you, the manufacturer, when it was ready for service and scheduled the service call on the customer’s behalf?

As “things” become more intelligent, they will gain the capacity to buy and sell in the world of digital business and the Internet of Things (IoT). This means new opportunities for revenue and efficiencies for all types of enterprises, but also new ways of managing customer relationships.

As “things” become customers, this will fundamentally change the vendor/customer relationship in many industries. The devices allow for a new relationship, one that bypasses the distributor and retailer intermediaries that currently intercede in the vendor-to-consumer relationship. Because their devices do much of the decision making for them, consumers will be able to bypass the retailing and service/repair channels that currently exist.

“This may seem far-fetched, but it’s not, and vendors that fail to build for such eventualities are at risk of obsolescence,” said Don Scheibenreif, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. “Things can already act on behalf of their humans, and do so today, largely by placing orders on behalf of their humans. Take for example, HP’s new service called Instant Ink. When you sign up for Instant Ink and connect your Wi-Fi-enabled printer to the Internet, it will monitor your ink levels, telling HP when you're running low. Before you run out of ink, a new ink cartridge arrives.”

By 2020, Gartner estimates Internet-connected things will outnumber humans 4-to-1, creating new dynamics for marketing, sales and customer service.

“We know that today, Internet-connected things can already identify themselves, and even locate themselves. Machine-to-machine communication means they will have the ability to communicate - with each other, with customers and with businesses. Things will make lives easier, both at work and outside of work, by handling routine tasks, and it's not a stretch to see how they will move from simple ordering to negotiating,” said Mr. Scheibenreif.

That means we could soon be seeing sensors in a customer's refrigerator that detect the usage of products, automatically build a shopping list, and then negotiate the best value for what they want to pay and when they want the products delivered from a list of retailers they select. Similarly, a wearable health device, in concert with home sensors, could predict that a patient will experience a diabetic coma if action is not taken immediately. The device then works across an ecosystem of providers and services to dispatch a home healthcare professional to stabilize the patient, avoiding thousands of dollars in expenses.

The technologies involved in these scenarios already exist today. The connective tissue - the systems, processes and technology providers - that will tie the ecosystems together for thing-based CRM will not take long to develop. Related issues of security, fault tolerance and reliability, especially in something like the smart home, will have to be addressed, and many upgrades to the technologies will be needed in these areas, especially with any medical-related processes, but we are not as far off as some might think.

“The IoT will do more for us today and in the future than we have yet to imagine,” Mr. Scheibenreif said. “Things will become your customers or will act on behalf of customers, as their agents. It is a future both intriguing and scary. However, whether your organization is excited or spooked at the prospect of intelligent things as customers, it’s important to remember that humans will be able to set the parameters for most things. Human customers will programmatically tell things what to do, and organizations will have the ability to turn off the things.”

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