As humans, we yearn for connection -- and while our tools will always change, the principles and desires that drive us stay the same. As our communications tools improved, the radius of our connections increased -- until the whole world was at our fingertips. Now, we are moving into a time when our connected devices are helping us connect to the world around us, in ways we couldn't dream of.

It’s not so much about the devices themselves -- but about using them as a door into a new world, where we may have a better relationship with ourselves, where we track our activity to improve our lives (quantified self). Or maybe in this new world, service providers, product makers and users work together to get more from their products and services.

What started as “The Internet of Things” has evolved into “The Internet of Customers” at last year’s Dreamforce. Here, everyone and everything is connected -- and at the end of every device is a customer. This connectedness changes the relationship between the company and the customer -- but by working together we can thrive, not just survive.

Reduce Friction

When communication doesn’t have to depend on humans to take action, friction is reduced -- or even removed. In a high-touch support model, if I need customer support, I’ll call, email, tweet or livechat with an agent. This always introduces friction. If I don’t care enough to call, email, tweet or livechat, I will skip this step because it’s too onerous, and as a result may not get the most out of the product -- or may even abandon it altogether. When devices are connected, they give off signals and communicate “automagically” -- without having to wait for the customer to take action. And if a company is willing and able to serve, removal of friction is always good.

Increase Urgency and Context

What happens next? The use of social tools has shortened the minimum acceptable response time. When a customer tweets and doesn’t receive at least an empathetic acknowledgement and a promise to “look into it," she becomes vulnerable to being poached by competitors.

Now when products are giving off signals, customers will expect you, the business, to respond even faster -- and know more about them. A customer calling the bank and giving her mother’s maiden name to three different agents just went from nuisance to inexcusable. If the system can crank through all the bytes of data, triage them, suggest an action and automate at least the initial response with urgency and personalization (something along the lines of “We noticed your engine needs service -- click here to book an appointment”) -- that allows a human agent to follow up later.

Anticipate and Deliver

But responding to a signal that already happened is not good enough. Much like Wayne Gretzky skates to where the puck will be, we as businesses need to “skate” to what the customer will need -- because now we can anticipate what it will be. When every automobile part is giving off a signal, the car itself can alert the driver and the dealer for preventative maintenance -- and even help make a service appointment, or order the part. By the time the customer calls about having had mechanical failure, it’s too late.

On a less dramatic note, I would love if my Nike Fuelband proactively pinged me when I’m lagging behind my daily activity goals. I would also love it if my bicycle locked up its wheels and alerted the police if it was stolen. You know, the little things ....

Customize and Personalize

When everything and everyone is connected, we all have unprecedented access to each other. You as a business now know more about your customers than ever before -- as do they. You can bypass informational gatekeepers and just execute based on that knowledge. This radical access and transparency is a great power -- and, as we know, with great power comes great responsibility.

Once customers know that you have access to their product’s data, they expect you to use it to proactively solve problems for them. They don’t want a one-size-fits-all product, service or marketing message -- they want you to really know them and use it to customize the right experience at the right time.

Go From Data to Insights

To respond to real time or anticipated customer needs in a personalized way, you need data. Relative to human-generated updates, device-generated updates simply give us more signals. The downside of this deluge of data is the risk of losing an individual signal among the sea of noise. Some of these signals will be less important than others -- false-positives even. By removing human subjectivity, device-generated signals can also mask context and the real magnitude of the customer's pain.

To compensate, over time, systems will get better at auto-triaging, to help us zero in on the most meaningful of signals. And when we know more about each of our customers, we can place each signal produced on their behalf in the context of our relationship with them. With advances in computing power, our ability to work with “big data” and turn it into actionable insights (“So what? What do I do now?”) is critical to the success of this new relationship with our customers.

Create Effective Systems

Taking a one-off action is only the beginning. The real art is in doing it in a sustainable way that neither compromises customer trust, nor stretches your resources so thinly that you go out of business. The world is volatile and moving fast -- and adding more data points and devices into the mix will only make it more so.

This level of connectedness makes us all more fragile, where even the smallest of events can have a disproportionate impact on each of us. This is why any system you create must be naturally resilient and responsive: absorbing multiple data points, dynamically adjusting, and enabling parts of the system to act autonomously and with appropriate urgency, without compromising the whole system.

As an example, if a nonessential car part fails, the system quarantines it at a local level without compromising the whole car (dynamic adjustment). Then it alerts the right humans to get involved and perhaps even creates a ticket in the support community (autonomy). Then the signal is sent to the larger system, and if enough of these signals are received, the system proactively alerts all car owners to get their car parts checked (system-wide adjustment).

This new breed of system includes not only devices, data, predictive and actionable analytics and communication systems -- but also people.

Co-create the New Social Contract

This radical transparency and interconnectedness brings me to my next point: trust.

If you have all this data about your customers, you are expected to use it in ways that enhance the customer experience. Central to the subject of mutual expectations is your “social contract.” I’m not talking about your official customer contract or your privacy policy (although those are important too!). I am talking about an implicit or explicit mutual promise and mutual expectations of how you work together. It’s that gentle and nuanced dance of give and take, that’s informed not only by the words you say, but the actions you take.

All it takes is one misalignment between expectations and actions -- even if you didn’t promise anything in writing -- and trust is gone. And once trust goes, there isn’t much left in the age of transparency.

Retain Humanness

Automating some of the process is necessary -- especially triage at the first line of defense -- but you can’t automate everything; you still need human insight. A few months ago, I wrote about the silly (and downright harmful) mistakes that happen if you rely on data without human interpretation. Human cognition is especially important when reconciling conflicting viewpoints.

Humans not only make sense of data, but are an integral part of your system’s resilience -- in times of uncertainty, or when the system is stretched to the limit. The collective action of a community overcomes all obstacles. For example, if a car part fails and there isn't an obvious solution, the system may auto-generate a trouble ticket as the first line of defense -- but it’s going to be the community “swarm” of engineers, dealers and even other customers that solves it.

The Future Looks Bright

This radical connectedness brings into focus a need for a different way of communicating: with urgency, empathy, trust and transparency. While these words have gotten a bad reputation as buzzwords, these concepts have never been more important. A new opportunity is upon us to reexamine how we come together with our entire communities of employees, customers, partners and fans, to create the future together. We won’t know all the answers ahead of time, and that’s OK.

Title image by Charles Taylor (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more from Maria in Don't Be a Social Business Statistic