Ben Davis: Customer-centricity should be more than just hot air

The fact it’s hard to map customer-centricity to the bottom line is no excuse: brands have got to join up their thinking around the customer to offer a consistent experience across all touchpoints.

pressure

Marketers speak about customer-centricity all the time. The fact that it is hard to define is a double-edged sword – execs may feel they can claim to be customer-centric without being held to account, but on the other hand it is difficult to change the culture or structure of a business to actually put the customer first.

On Twitter, commentators regularly laugh about how out of touch the martech hype machine can be, but blockchain and virtual reality are soft targets and the businesses that invest in emerging tech are not necessarily the ones neglecting more quotidian matters.

Marketing Week recently reported on the annual KPMG Nunwood Customer Experience Excellence index, which rates brands on six metrics: personalisation, time and effort, resolution, integrity, expectations and empathy. The scores for brands at the top of the table (e.g. John Lewis, Lush, Marks & Spencer) are fairly stagnant.

This stagnation is simple to understand – consumer expectations change quicker than businesses can react. Whether you’re in marketing or not, it only takes one smooth interaction with a business to make you question why everything else isn’t so effortless.

And the disappointing thing is that relatively simple examples of joined-up thinking can still feel like exceptions that prove the rule.

A positive experience

I’ll give you an example from an industry that has not woken up to customer-centricity – insurance. I recently changed my car insurer (an annual event, obviously, unless you are lazy enough to acquiesce to the auto-renewal) and my new insurer, RAC, sent me an SMS which read: “Thanks for choosing RAC for your car insurance. We wanted to send you some important telephone numbers to store in your phone should you ever need us. We’re here for you on these lines 24/7.”

The message included numbers for claims, windscreen repair and breakdown. None of my previous insurers had managed to carry this off. The message pleasantly surprised me. And then my surprise surprised me. But why?

Could it be that for some insurers, the cost of sending such an SMS is deemed to outweigh the benefit to the business? How do you go about measuring the benefit of these text messages – net promoter score? Perhaps the reduction in the number of calls that come in to the wrong number? Both of these are potentially difficult to measure accurately.

This is a sticking point – customer-centricity can’t always be mapped to the bottom line, especially not in the short term. It is no coincidence that companies recently associated with customer-centricity are often startups in the process of scaling up and perhaps not worried about short-term profitability, nor constrained by legacy structures and technology.

Ultimately, work on the customer experience is work to build your brand.

Customer-centricity is both an art and a science. User research is required, leaders need to champion the customer, and organisational structure needs to ensure product-centric teams do not result in a disjointed customer journey.

What else can get in the way? Judging from a roundtable I moderated at Econsultancy Live, there are issues with siloed data (coveted by the department that keeps it), siloed objectives (strategy needs to be set from above), and investment in marketing teams that is often too executional and channel-led (i.e. there’s no way to take some people away from business-as-usual to work on something new).

There’s another factor getting in the way of great customer experience. Mike Jeffs, client service director at the agency Edit told me: “Brands need to pay much closer attention to what customers want and anticipate their needs, an art that has been somewhat lost in the world of acquisition-focused marketing.”

Acquisition ties so neatly to the bottom line. Want to invest in some new behavioural retargeting capability? Your boss might respond by asking: ‘How much extra money will it make us every month?’ But is enough consideration given to the long-term impact on brand of sending daily emails badgering prospective customers? Or of whether the user experience of your website or app is a bigger problem higher up the funnel?

Targeting has become an obsession

The story of the commercial internet is that of Google and Facebook, advertising companies. Amazon’s ad revenue has rapidly increased, too. The debate among marketers is skewed. Our industry seems obsessed by targeting because ad platforms have made marketers feel smart by letting them tick demographic boxes, adjust creative and get a figure for return on investment out at the end.

But what if turning acquisition into an online war of attrition is slowly turning off customers? Neil Perkin commented on Twitter recently: “Very little, if any, programmatic retargeting or content recommendation takes account of simple things like purchase frequency. I’m still getting retargeted endlessly to buy the same watch that I bought three months ago.”

Customer-centricity can’t always be mapped to the bottom line, especially not in the short term.

He continued: “The problem with this is that poor/lazy execution creates customer apathy and annoyance and is bad for the wider marketing industry, let alone the brands that indulge in it… It strikes me that there are lots of indirect costs like how people feel about being retargeted by brands and by extension about marketing as a whole, and the big disappointment is that there are surely far more interesting things we could be doing using sequential messaging or improved use of context.”

This wasn’t meant to be an article banging on about retargeting, but Perkin’s point is that marketers can be spending time and money on more strategic activity, such as making the customer experience slick.

Ultimately, work on the customer experience is work to build your brand. If you are a bank, for example, for many customers your app experience is your brand – I see the Barclays app icon every hour of the day when I look at my phone. I open and use the app every week, far more often than I see Barclays advertising or go into branch or receive its promotional mail.

If you are a car insurer, you are there to reassure the driver. RAC seems to understand that – maybe I’ll use that auto-renewal after all.

Ben Davis is the editor of Econsultancy

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