Kathy Gibson is at Gartner Symposium in Cape Town – The world’s wealthiest people have managed to “weaponise” technology innovation to garner and retain power.

This is the word from Don Scheibenreif, vice-president distinguished analyst at Gartner, who points out that technology was going to be the ultimate equaliser.

“We believed that equal access to technology would raise everyone’s standard of living,” he says. “But there is still a gap between those who have technology and, therefore, to the opportunities it brings.

“We also know that the wealthiest people on the planet have always found ways to maintain their power.”

Now the top 1% of organisations’ customers are learning about how these billionaires are using technology.

Scheibenreif describes a weapon as something used to create an advantage or defend against something else.

He explains that there are 2 000 billionaires in the world today, and 10% of them actively used technology to gain their wealth.

“These people have used technology to create fascinating new opportunities,” he says. “The nature of technology is changing and they have used it to gain power.”

Scheibenreif defines power as being on various levels: legitimate power, reward power, referent power, informational power, expert power and coercive power.

In the digital age, he thinks three of these sources are most relevant: referent – who knows who; informational – who knows what; and expert – who knows how.

“Individuals ae using technology to amplify what they know and to influence the world.”

Do billionaires innovate or do they manipulate? Scheibenreif thinks it is a bit of both.

They are driving innovation where others can’t or won’t. For instance, Amazon is not afraid to do things differently, even at the expense of profit.

They pursue the exploration of new worlds. An example is SpaceX with its pioneering space travel.

They leverage information better than anyone else, like Google parent Alphabet.

“We have all been beneficiaries of these innovations.” Scheibenreif says. “But, on the flip side, they are also known to manipulate us.”

For instance they can influence government policy; they can pay for privacy; and they own large-sale media assets.

“Think of the top 1% of customers as your billionaires,” Scheibenreif suggests. “They can leverage their social capital to either help you or hurt you.

“They can also leverage information – often better than you can; and they can help you to drive innovation within your business.”

These customers are learning from billionaires, Scheibenreif says. “They are learning that they can get on-demand services that used to be available only to very wealthy people.”

These services include things like massages on demand, meals delivered to their home, valet parking and a range of domestic services.

“These customers are learning they can use wealth and technology to get things that previously only the very wealthy could get.”

The top customers will soon also figure out that, if they work with your other customers, they can influence the company.

The positive impact of this is that companies can improve their efficiency, Scheibenreif says.

On the negative side, though, it could decrease pricing options.

“We also know that some of your suppliers may know more about your company than you do,” Scheibenreif points out.

On the positive side, this allows companies to discover and share new suppliers. On the negative side, however, this could allow customers and suppliers to avoid lock-in with you, he adds.

“So your top customer can work for you, or work against you.”

Top customers could use knowledge of technology to spot flaws in your business. This could have a positive impact if it lets companies solve problems. A negative impact, however, could result in a complete change of the business.

“When individuals have some kind of power, or know something about your business that you don’t, they can exert a lot of influence,” Scheibenreif says.

Top customers want to be less dependent on you, Scheibenreif says. On the positive, this can create demand for you; on the negative side, it could disrupt your business model.

“If you are not meeting your top customers’ demands, and they take their business away, this could have a big impact.”

Scheibenreif says companies should take on board three easy steps: learn, earn and turn.

Learn refers to finding out who the top 1% of customers are; how they benefit you; whether they use their power to hurt or help you; finding out what they know about you; and how good are they at using technology?

Companies might look at the idea of a digital twin to model what their customers might want.

Turn relates to turning insight into strategy.

IT and sales/marketing must work together on this. Scheibenreif says companies should track and report on the activities of their top 1% of customers, and show them how much you care about them and value their business.

Quantum computing, capable of more sophisticated analyses, could be employed in gaining additional insights, Scheibenreif says.

The final area, earn, is about gaining loyalty while protecting profits.

“You want to understand the behaviour, needs and wants of the top customers,” Scheibenreif says. “The customer insight team should dig deeper into this group than any other. At the same time, don’t ignore the other 99% of your customers.”

Virtual assistants could be useful in these tasks.

“So why does this matter?” Scheibenreif asks

“The reason we did the research is we believe the wealthy have always found ways to increase their power. But we also believe that the top 1% of your customers will mimic those behaviours.”

Gartner recommends that companies aim to understand the five main ways the wealthiest in society make use of tech for their own ends.

They should also investigate how the 1% of your most valuable customers are making use of the same approaches, and sociallse this with members of their operating community.

“Also think about how you can protect yourself from the effects of this group,” Scheibenreif concludes.