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Excessive focus on technology drowns out voice of the customer

Put the voice of customers at the center of what defines a meaningful customer experience. Don't get distracted by the capabilities of the technology.

Companies recognize the financial benefits of improving customer experience (CX) and spend money accordingly in acquiring customer relationship management (CRM) technology and building preference centers.

But the bad news is that they often get so lost in technology initiatives that they forget their mission: to improve their customers' experience. Forgetting the voice of the customer will invariably lead to a failed technology strategy.

Two chief marketing officers described the problem of implementing technology on top of poor practices:

- "I've come to the realization that we are using new technology to automate our existing bad behaviors. We will simply be increasing our ability to do more brand damaging 'spray and pray' due to installing the latest high-capacity CRM technology."

- "We've invested millions in new customer engagement technology and just realized that we never actually asked our customers how they define more relevant communications and experiences."

In my work with executives on CX initiatives, I've discovered that their problems have little to do with technology, but rather with lacking an in-depth understanding of how customers define meaningful customer experiences.

CRM and preference-center initiatives should be based on understanding how a company's customers define the customer experiences they want to have.

This recommendation is based on more than 10,000 hours of Ernan Roman Direct Marketing's Voice of the Customer (VoC) research for clients including MassMutual, Symantec Corp.’s Norton AntiVirus, NBC Universal, IBM, QVC and Microsoft.

Research findings from in-depth interviews with business-to-business and business-to-consumer decision makers indicate that the following six factors contribute to competitively differentiating customer experience:

1. Improve the customer experience across every point of contact with your organization. Mike Rude, managing director of customer experience at FedEx Corporate Services, said: "Too often, CRM and preference-center initiatives focus on technology and process. We work hard to first understand the needs of the customer. This enables us to ensure that technology deployment will focus on delivering the optimal customer experience at every point of contact and every channel important to our customers." 

2. "Improve the customer experience" applies to all media elements and all company departments. CRM success truly hinges on effective change management. According to Forrester Research Inc., the top "people" challenges when implementing a CRM solution include cultural resistance to change (45%), difficulties in user adoption (44%), insufficient planning and attention given to change management (42%), and inadequate leadership (38%).

3. High-quality experiences must be maintained throughout the customer relationship -- not just on the sales end. "We need to think in terms of engaging customers at every stage of the customer lifecycle. This causes a shift from one-way communications to conversations and thinking about content differently," said Eric Nystrom, director of Dell's Social Media Services Group. "Customers expect to engage with subject-matter experts and empowered employees, not corporate spokespeople. Therefore, content needs to be relevant, interesting, engaging and always on."

4. Customer experiences must be driven by individual preferences regarding message, timing, frequency and media mix. "For customers," said Jennifer Downes, director of direct response marketing at Lenovo NA, "the preference center is the mechanism to voice how they wish to interact with a brand. For marketers, it allows them to develop a deeper understanding of their customers. That said, the reality is that marketers as business people have metrics to meet, which may be at odds with providing the best customer experience. The key to success is for the marketer to find creative ways to meet these metrics without creating a conflict with the customer's desire for relevant engagement."

5. Preferences must drive high-quality personalization of communications and experiences. "Based on the learnings from the VoC research, we have fundamentally redesigned the way we look at relationships with customers," said Kris Gates, vice president of customer experience at MassMutual Retirement Services. "Taking [an incremental] approach to our marketing efforts, we already have several VoC research-based initiatives under way. These range from redefining how we view the customer-focused value of CRM platforms and our data, to campaign targeting and preference-based communications.” 

6. Privacy of preference information is essential. "Start with the end in mind," said Scott Frey, president and CEO of PossibleNOW. "Creating a plan for how the information is collected through the preference center and safeguarded will impact marketing campaigns and customer correspondence."

Key takeaways

Jeff Howell, director of subscriber communications and engagement/CRM, at SiriusXM, noted four important takeaways regarding technology, preferences centers and delivering an improved customer experience:

  • Many marketers miss the full value of a preference center. They view it as a means of meeting compliance goals and capturing simplistic preferences, such as email versus mail, or Product A versus Product B.
  • The real value of a preference center is to engage customers and capture information on the customers' issues of importance.
  • Opt-in preference information should enable a customer to define his relationship with the company across multiple devices, channels and key points in the customer's lifecycle.
  • "Marketers have to become smarter about using technology -- not as a silver bullet, but simply an enabler to deliver on a competitively differentiating customer experience," Howell said. "Too often marketers lose focus on the customer and get distracted by the operational requirements and capabilities of the technology."

FedEx's Rude added that it is beneficial to avoid the mistake of becoming enamored by technology's promise. Focus on understanding what the customer wants and how to use technology to deliver on those expectations, he said.

Internal technology decisions need to be guided by external customer insights. Installing CRM technology without understanding how customers define relevance, engagement and preferences will simply result in technology automating existing bad behaviors.

About the author:
Ernan Roman is president of Ernan Roman Direct Marketing(ERDM). ERDM specializes in conducting Voice of Customer research to identify high impact customer experience strategies. Clients include IBM, MassMutual, Microsoft, Symantec Corp.’s NortonAntiVirus, QVC and Songza. Roman is the author of Voice of the Customer Marketing and of the Huffington Post published blog, Ernan's Insights on Marketing Best Practices. He was named by Crain’s BtoB Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in Business Marketing. 

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This makes a lot of sense to me - new technology is not going to solve your problems; you need to have a new mindset to be able to use that new technology in ways that will help you. I think it's important for everyone across the company to understand why a new system is being put in place and how behaviors will be adjusted accordingly.