4 Steps to Expand Your Customer Interface and Interaction

About four months ago, I wrote a post about protecting your customer relationships from the risk posed by intermediaries. In that post, I wrote about how brand-customer relationship is no longer just about satisfying customers. It has become about competing with intermediaries who seek to take over your customer relationships. I also pointed out this offers opportunities for you to do the same to your own competitors.

Three months later, TechCrunch published a post about the same thing, “The Battle is for the Customer Interface.” Frankly, I like their term “interface” better, but it’s the same idea. Your success in the near- and mid-term future depends critically on how well you manage your customer interface. This post offers several tips on how to do get started.

What Do Uber, Facebook, Alibaba, and Airbnb Have in Common?

They’re massively successful. True, but that’s not the main point.

They use the Internet and apps to serve their customer. True too, but again, not the crucial point.

Are you starting to get a sense of what I’m going after?

To quote Goodwin’s TechCrunch post, “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.” What they sell is access to rides from others, access to others’ content, access to others’ products, and access to others’ accommodations (see a cute infographic from WetPaint on Twitter). Goodwin then explains that these new giants of business all fight for one thing: being the interface for consumers needing services.

The Battle Is For The Customer Interface http://t.co/Ju2Fep0hiu w/ @tomfgoodwin @Uber @facebook @AlibabaTalk @Airbnb pic.twitter.com/uWaDx9hbx0

— Wetpaint MENA (@WetpaintMENA) April 8, 2015

Your Battle for Customer-Interface Supremacy

Although each of these brands sells a different service, they’re really all selling the same thing – trustworthy customer interface. As a result of this interface orientation, each of these brands has positioned itself in a very innovative way to dominate its market.

Whether you aspire to be a world-dominating brand or simply want to protect and grow your market share at the expense of your competitors, here’s your four-step secret cheat-list.

  1. Do an Interface Mapping of YOUR Business – Are You the Direct Interface for Your Ultimate Customer?

Take airlines for example. Most have many competitors for their ultimate customer’s interface. If someone wants to fly on United, American, Lufthansa, etc., they can go directly to that airline’s website, or they can interface through Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, Kayak, brick-and-mortar travel agents, or even their favorite hotel chain’s site. On the other hand, if you want to fly on Southwest, your only interface is that airline’s website. This means that 100 percent of Southwest’s customer interface is through their own site, but for other airlines, this may be less than 30 percent.

You’ll find a similar situation in the auto industry. Almost all car manufacturers have long ceded customer interface to dealerships. When was the last time you spoke with any employee of Ford, GM, or Toyota, or visited the website of a car maker to purchase a vehicle? More recently, you may even have gone through an affiliate such as a car-buying service from AAA or AARP. This means even car dealerships are losing some of their interface fraction. The notable exception is the newest car maker, Tesla. You can only buy their cars through wholly-owned showrooms.

Tip: Audit your own interface fraction.

What’s the ratio between those who access your products or services directly through your website, points of sale, or app vs. the total number of customers and prospects who reach you?

  1. Map how your direct and indirect competitors interface

Look at your direct and indirect competitors as well as brands offering products and services related to your own offerings. How do they interface with customers and prospects? How large is their customer and prospect database? How do these compare to the global market? How large or small is their direct interface fraction?

Note that your own partners, if they interface with your competitors, are your competitors from a customer-interface standpoint. For example, if you sell through the Amazon Marketplace, Amazon is your competitor both in sales and as the interface owner for those customers who buy from you through the Amazon website.

Tip: Maximize your interface fraction.

If your direct interface fraction is small, try making special offers to those clients who buy directly through your site or app. These offers may be as simple as free shipping, or if you sell software, it may be a free upgrade to your next release.

  1. Consider expanding by venturing into the customer-interface arena

American Express is a great example of a classic financial-service brand that transitioned into being an interface. They know how to interface between consumers and brands, distributing personalized discounts from brands to customers.

Tip: Try becoming the customer interface for other brands.

Do you have relationships with customers who trust you and see you as an authority? If so, brainstorm with your team to see what other brands may benefit from traffic you send them. You may be able to win a central role as customer interface for those brands, be they competitors or related businesses.

  1. Change the game through strategic acquisitions

Facebook bought Instagram instead of trying to copy and compete with it. It wasn’t because they lacked engineers or because Instagram was impossible to duplicate. It was simply more cost-effective to buy an established brand with an existing customer-interface position. This acquisition also removed Instagram as a competitor.

Tip: Brainstorm how you could expand your interface footprint with acquisitions.

If you can, consider buying out a competitor who has a large interface footprint or even a company that serves as one of your own interfaces.


Two trends have revolutionized the customer interface arena:

First, the Internet has leveled the playing field in terms of offering almost unlimited access to information to the masses. However, while this has simplified things in terms of being able to access information, it has also drastically complicated things in terms of knowing how to find the most up-to-date and trustworthy information.

Second, consumers are ever busier, with more they need to do, more they need to research, and more they need to decide.

These trends are where your secret to success lies. If you do your homework well, you can position yourself as the trusted interface to services, products, and information. This is what CNET has done for software downloads. Why should a customer waste her time researching about whether a software package is legitimate and useful? She can simply search for it on CNET and find reviews from both customers and the site’s editors. She also knows she can safely download the program using their link.

TripAdvisor offers access to interesting things to do, restaurants to try, hotels to stay at, and even lets you get to your restaurant or hotel using Uber. Now that’s irony for you—the brand that became the interface for hired rides is now being interfaced by TripAdvisor.

Do you have your own favorite examples of who your interfaces are as a consumer? How about examples of other businesses for whom you serve as interface?