If there was a marketing mantra in 2018, it was probably: ‘We put our customers at the heart of what we do.’
It is a cosy, magnanimous claim that speaks well to the boardroom and earns nods in conferences. But under a warm spotlight, the promise often fizzles into hyperbole: a recent Forrester Opportunity Snapshot revealed that while 82% claim a customer-led approach in their journey planning, only 13% of brands have successfully achieved it.
So, given the connection between positive customer experiences and business fortunes, where should we start in making ‘customer-centricity’ a reality?
Times have changed, but have we?
Given this is Marketing Week, I’ll spare you that familiar story about the digital economy, pace of evolution and market disruption. While these macro transitions may be far-reaching, beneath the hubbub one constant remains: brands hanker after long-term customer relationships.
Meanwhile, what has radically transformed is our capability to deliver on the promise – understanding and developing complex relationships at great scale. Over the past 15 years, ad tech and martech satiated and stimulated our ambitions in equal measure; our early desire for audience response became a fixation on interaction – and today’s businesses now seek engagement.
So it is curious that while technology can finally sustain our aspirations to provide personal and positive experiences, so many organisations continue to plan customer journeys with only a brand-led, ‘dictated’ approach. Crudely, this involves apportioning swathes of customers into discernible segments, with which behaviour is predicted and ‘personalised’ interactions are informed.
This can sometimes seem like more of a one-way cat flap than a relationship – we can do better. Meanwhile, consumers have a very heightened awareness of their personal value to brands, and it is with this new-found confidence that they are voting with their feet.
Journeys as the secret to success
There is a place for ‘manual’ journey planning, and firms will continue to harness journey maps. Welcome journeys won’t create themselves, for example. But such planning is now only part of an evolving space; thanks to artificial intelligence, we can understand and orchestrate complex, context-driven and ‘live’ journeys at incredible magnitude. The shift from ‘talking at’ to ‘engaging with’ is upon us – and it is moving at pace.
Consequently, we are justified in elevating the role of customer journeys, from delivering planned events to fostering relationships. It is acknowledged that the journey does not develop along a linear path; nor does it deliver diminishing returns. Journeys should be seen as three-dimensional, embracing every touchpoint and (with a little artistic licence) you could essentially say they are alive.
So, to live up to our brand promises and with fresh understanding of its direct impact on business fortunes, we must ensure that this evolving relationship is driven by the customer. It is time to stop dictating, and start enabling, customer journeys.
From brand-led to intent-driven
People get in touch for many reasons; whether to research, make a purchase, seek advice, share information or make a complaint. And while their individual intentions differ, consumers have two common expectations.
Firstly, they want to be treated appropriately. Secondly, they do not want their time wasted.
To create better experiences than the competition, brands must quickly interpret the signals emitted from millions of interactions and touchpoints to understand who is engaging, and, crucially, what they seek. In part, this requires a philosophical shift; the business asks ‘what does this customer need?’ rather than ‘what are we trying to sell?’.
At Thunderhead, we call this an ‘intent-driven’ approach to customer journeys. Rather than pushing brand or product to a segment, intent-driven journeys hand significant control to customers, recognising their individual goals and helping them reach these quickly. Drawing on all available context, an organisation can instantaneously mobilise communications, sales staff or call operators in demonstrating its attentiveness.
Hype aside, this is true customer-centricity. Traditional campaigns generate insights, awareness and short-term revenue. But they tend to ‘talk at’ customers, treat channels separately and are ultimately perishable.
Conversely, intent-driven journeys traverse all touchpoints and evolve over time with the fundamental aim of providing better long-term experiences and growth.
Analysts Rusty Warner and Carlton A Doty are clear about the associated benefits: “Campaigns are far less effective at winning and retaining customers than they once were.
To achieve sustainable competitive advantage, B2C marketers must deliver self-perpetuating cycles of real-time, two-way, insight-driven interactions with individual customers… [and] build a marketing strategy to address the end-to-end customer journeys – before, during, and after purchase.”
Customer-centricity: not just marketing
Although customer journeys are the segue, customers are no longer the sole responsibility of marketing. As boards grapple with the commercial benefits and operational ramifications of putting customers at the heart of the business, a customer-focused superteam has emerged to turn intentions into reality. The CMO is joined by the CTO, CIO, CCO and, most recently, chief customer experience officer. This elite customer squad – and the focus on real journeys – helps to ease the essential organisational shift from being brand- to customer-focused, considering culture, KPIs and collaborative working practices.
Fortunes will follow on from this, as Salesforce says in its 2018 State of Marketing report: “A staggering 91% of high performers agree that a connected customer journey across all touchpoints and channels positively impacts customer loyalty. Another 89% say the same for the impact on revenue growth.”
Associated change does not have to be painful, and focusing on customers is not at the expense of revenue. In the spirit of any innovation, it is perfectly feasible to think big, start small – and scale fast. The best place to start is listening. For example, connecting your channels to reveal ‘true customer journeys’ is feasible within a matter of weeks.
Moving beyond the hyperbole
Empowering customers to follow their own journeys is the future and requires a strategic shift in approach. But it pays dividends for the organisation. McKinsey summarises: “Companies that excel in delivering journeys tend to win… Better performance on journeys correlates strongly with faster revenue growth.”
Putting customers at the heart of what we do needn’t be an esoteric aspiration. Nor is it an arduous, expensive ordeal. Everything starts with a journey. To paraphrase a Chinese proverb about planting trees (as you do), the best time to start enabling was yesterday. The second-best time is today.
Wil Lynch is head of engagement at Thunderhead.
Thunderhead is a Leader in The Forrester Wave: Journey Visioning & Orchestration Platforms 2018.