Traditional bricks and mortar businesses in Ireland and elsewhere are increasingly selling to and serving customers that they have never met or even spoken to. Their customers are disappearing out of their retail outlets and off their phone lines into this new place called cyberspace.

How do businesses attract the attention of this new breed of customer? How do they sell to them or serve them? How do they build lasting relationships with customers they never meet? If business owners are not already asking themselves these questions, they will be very soon as greater numbers of their customers vanish from their doorsteps.

Am I overstating the case? Well, read each of the following statements and keep note of how many you concur with:

  1. “I can’t remember the last time I queued in a bank or building society.”
  2. “I read a lot but haven’t actually bought a book in a bookshop (or borrowed one from the library) in ages.”
  3. “Travel agents book flights for people. Really? And you actually pay them do do that?!”
  4. “Buying CD’s in record shops is a rip-off.”
  5. “I do all my grocery shopping online.”
  6. “I always buy my perfume/cosmetics online. Bargain.”
  7. “Can’t say I’ve ever walked into the local branch of an insurance company or a broker’s office.”
  8. “Television? Oh, you mean YouTube?”
  9. “What, you’re not on Bebo or Facebook?!”
  10. “You can actually TALK to people on mobile phones??”
  11. “I don’t buy newspapers – I get all the news I want online for FREE.”
  12. “When was the last time I wrote a letter? Your having a laugh! I’ve got two email accounts, instant messenger, Skype – who needs letters?!”

How did you do? If you found yourself agreeing with more than 50%, you can call yourself a member of “Net Gen” – the young ones who are disappearing into cyberspace faster than the rest of us. If you’re over 25 you can count yourself an honorary member of Net Gen. If you are over 25 and don’t find yourself agreeing with most of these, try putting these statements to someone under 25 and see what the difference is.

The point I am making is that the way customers interact with organisations is changing. We live in an age of technology-mediated consumer interactions, and that technology is increasingy Internet-based. The age of face-to-face encounters with customers where you can “eyeball” each other, “press the flesh”, have “the bit of banter” and so on, is passing.

Consumers who want to book flights, pay a bill, or buy products no longer have the inclination to head into town to do these things. Increasingly they don’t even want to have to ring a call centre and be bounced around an IVR maze for 20 minutes before they speak with someone. If they cannot do it online with you, you can be sure that they can with someone else; and because they’ve never met you they’ve certainly got no sense of loyalty to you.

As a generation disappears from the highstreets to a rapidly changing and unfamiliar place, we are all having to adapt, learn and keep up. The time for wondering if “the Interweb thing” will ever take off has passed. In order to stay relevant, meet expectations, succeed; we must all be digitally aware, skilled and engaged. In so doing we’ll not only know where all the people are gone – we’ll be there with them.

As I put this blog post together I’m experiencing a sense of the enormity of this. As a person working in the Internet industry I get the challenge for business. I also see that this is going to have much bigger implications across society as a whole. People are not just disappearing from business’s doorsteps, but from the traditional places we meet and interact in society. The Internet presents wonderful opportunities for greater collaboration and mutual understanding; however it also presents a challenge to how we understand ourselves and our relationships with others.

Having been blogging for nearly a year I’m reviewing the direction of my blog. I’ve used it mainly for clarifying things about business and new media in my own mind and then hopefully making it easily accessible to others. If there were to be a theme for the direction I would like to take I think it would be teasing out the impact the disappearance of a generation into cyberspace will have on businesses and society at large. So the brief might widen a bit, but hopefully some will still find it interesting.

Photo by TomS-M (CC)