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Navigating the culture of now

There’s much to like about our 24/7, get-it-now world. But the road to instant gratification is littered with pitfalls. Here’s how to steer clear of the hazards.

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This story was created by Fast Company for Grant Thornton as a part of a content series that explores the impact of innovation and technology.
Chris Smith woke up early one morning while on vacation in Tuscany and struck out in search of breakfast. Nothing was open in the sleepy town of Pitigliano. Smith learned that many of the restaurants didn’t open until 10 a.m., and then closed for much of the afternoon. The town’s population, he realized, had learned to fit their needs within those hours.

“One of the locals told me, ‘You Americans, you always want things right now,’ ” says Smith, principal and head of the strategy and transformation practice at Grant Thornton. “And it’s true. We’ve gotten used to instant gratification. Where I live in Seattle, products get delivered without an order, just based on our past purchasing habits.”

For many companies, the Holy Grail is to deliver the goods and services customers want, when they want them and where they want them. And now, more and more technologies are helping them achieve these goals. Location intelligence, predictive analytics, and artificial intelligence gather and crunch data to help identify and facilitate these deliveries. “Combining these technologies really enables the Culture of Now,” says Erik Shannon, Grant Thornton’s national leader for the health care sector.

Smith and Shannon caution that companies wishing to participate in the Culture of Now must proceed carefully. If they don’t, they risk catastrophes that can include angry customers, burned-out employees and scorched reputations. “On-demand everything is a phenomenon that’s happening and a mind-set that we have,” Smith says. “But it’s not always a good thing.”

Cool or creepy?For companies and consumers, there’s a lot to like about the Culture of Now. Companies can goose sales and build a larger, more loyal customer base by bringing products and services directly to consumers. For their part, customers don’t have to remember to pick up groceries on the way home from work—they’re waiting on the front porch. “Consumers are feeling more empowered than ever,” Smith says. “Companies that can deliver are gaining long-term loyalty.”

Still, that goodwill can evaporate with one wrong move. Corporate missteps with data are especially common and costly. Companies need to mine enough data to provide the convenience customers demand—it takes a lot of information to predict the groceries someone wants and when they want them—but not too much. “There’s a line between cool and creepy when companies suggest things to us based on our behavioral patterns,” Smith says. Nearly 75% of U.S. consumers say they’d boycott a company that did a poor job protecting customer data, according to a recent survey by YouGov and cybersecurity firm RSA.

The pursuit of always-on service also can come with a heavy financial toll, says Olivier Toubia, a professor at Columbia Business School. That’s especially true for companies that surge ahead before thinking about how to monetize a service, such as same-day grocery delivery. To complicate matters, consumers are getting accustomed to using on-demand services and often aren’t willing to pay a premium for an instant delivery or service. “Consumers sometimes conflate the Culture of Now with the Culture of Free,” Toubia says. “Companies are partly responsible for that: In the race for customers, companies often are willing just to give services away.”

Make a planHow can companies identify the line between cool and creepy when it comes to data collection? And how can they navigate the financial and operational realities of chasing the Culture of Now? Smith and Shannon agree the answers lie in planning. “Where there’s confusion or challenges, there’s also opportunity,” Shannon says.

Before rolling out a new technology, companies need to build a road map that defines the customer experience the firm wants to deliver, how it will manage the drain on internal resources—and what it will do when problems inevitably crop up. “Companies often focus more on the product they’re selling than on how they can address the issues that arise from their efforts to deliver that product,” Shannon says.

This road map starts with defining objectives. Say, for instance, a company wants to roll out a new piece of technology to pursue an on-demand initiative. It should ask itself what that new technology will enable customers to do that they can’t already do. Companies also need to apply a stress test of sorts to these projects to identify potential weaknesses, not only for the customer but also internally.

Smith recalls a large American hospital chain that wanted to create an on-demand doctor-delivery service. The idea: Pull up the app for an appointment, and a doctor will show up at your home or office for a visit. “In concept, it was a great idea,” Smith says. In reality, though, it was a case study in what not to do: The company underestimated demand, which stretched capacity to the breaking point and led to days-long wait times for a doctor’s visit. Smith’s diagnosis: “It would have been easier to just make an appointment with my regular doctor.”

If the stress test goes well, the next step is to create a strategy to roll out the initiative, and to pilot it in a way that will let the company evaluate its viability without having a negative impact on its customers or its infrastructure. The Uber-for-doctors plan, for instance, would have likely fared better had it slowed down and tested its services on a smaller, less overwhelming population of users. “With this need for speed, companies rely more on intuition than on systematically evaluating and making these types of decisions,” Shannon says. “But there’s real value in making decisions more systematically.”

Is it necessary?Companies also need guiding principles to govern how they will handle sensitive client data. According to Smith, there’s no hard and fast rule for how to manage data, but “do no harm” is a good place to start. At the very least, executives should slow down and consider why they’re collecting customer data and what their views are around guarding and using that critical information. “I’m amazed at how many companies haven’t taken the time to come up with a statement about their philosophy on the use of customer data,” Smith says.

Finally, companies need to ask themselves a simple question: Do we need to do all of this? Do we need to sink huge resources into the culture of now? “We all have the tendency to be excited by new technology and scared about missing out,” Toubia says. “But you should always be thinking about how a new technology is going to help serve your customers better and differentiate your brand.”

In some cases, the answer to those questions can be no. “This always-on approach is wonderful for certain things, but I worry that it’s being applied to everything,” Smith says. “Sometimes being customer-centric doesn’t mean being open 24/7, and doesn’t mean getting consumers to buy more from you. Instead, it’s about enabling a healthy relationship between you and your customer.”

In other words, there are times to cater to the Culture of Now—and sometimes it makes sense to emulate the culture of Pitigliano, Italy.