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Why companies wrestle with the 360-degree customer view

Getting a holistic view of customers takes more than technology; companies need to eliminate data silos and gain insight about customer experience.

One Friday afternoon, Rob Rich's flight was canceled as he was trying to return to Boston from a business trip in Washington, D.C. There was bad weather, and the line at the ticket counter to rebook snaked across the terminal.

Rich, managing director of TM Forum Insights Research, a global trade association that offers market research and consulting to enterprises, decided he might save time by calling customer service directly to rebook. As a top-level flyer on the airline, he thought a service rep could make a quick change to get him home.

But the offshore agent on the other end of the line suggested a flight that left Monday -- three days later. Then, when Rich suggested looking at nearby airports for flights, the agent said she hadn't known those airports were close.

"She didn't have the information she needed to be helpful," Rich said, also one of the heads of the customer experience management (CEM) practice at TM Forum. "She was trying, but she didn't know."

Technology has made it possible for companies to collect massive amounts of information about customers -- from location, to social media interactions to buying preferences. Most companies now know they need to have what's known as a 360-degree view of their customers to provide a better, more seamless customer experience. This involves adopting customer experience management best practices to track, oversee and organize every interaction with each customer. This often entails being able to integrate data from multiple communication channels as well, such as customer communication on the phone, in email, on social media, in live chat and so on.

Now we can have a meaningful conversation with customers when they walk in the door.
James SlocumCIO, OneUnitedBank

But having the ability to collect data doesn't mean that data is easily accessible or that it's being used to the fullest extent to improve the customer experience, analysts said. In an ideal world, for example, Rich's agent would have immediately known which airports were nearby and that he was a top-level flyer.

Analysts say companies are making progress toward this 360-degree view of the customer. But most, including the giants, have a long way to go, they said. The technology is not the problem -- it's readily available-- but issues like cost, employee buy-in, a poor understanding of the customer experience, and siloed data get in the way.

"Right now there are very few companies that have that complete picture of their customers. It's hard to do," said Megan Heuer, vice president and group director of SiriusDecisions, a global business-to-business research and advisory firm. "All of this data is available, but there often aren't the skills in place for using the data to make day-to-day decisions. Even data scientists trying to make use of rich information have a hard time getting their internal customers to buy in."

Getting to that 360-degree view

Boston-based OneUnited Bank was well-versed in the problem of data silos across complex systems, according to James Slocum, the chief information officer. Bankers needed to shuffle between multiple systems to get information about customers' deposit accounts, loans, investment accounts and online banking. Branches couldn't collaborate and share information, he said, creating a disjointed customer experience.

The solution for OneUnited, a 23-branch bank, was a customer relationship management (CRM) platform from Salesforce. They also brought in a cloud-based customer service application and an employee collaboration app. Bankers now have access to a single screen that gives a 360-degree view of a customer and all a customer's interactions with the bank, said Slocum, and all branches have access to the same information.

"When you have all these silos of data, you end up with a disjointed experience in your call centers and in your branches," he said. "Now we can have a meaningful conversation with customers when they walk in the door."

Though it's a long-term goal, the bank has not yet integrated customers' social media profiles into its CRM platform. There are plenty of available products to do that, Slocum said, but it's an issue of cost and resources.

Kiva, a nonprofit that matches low-income entrepreneurs throughout the world with microloans, also brought in a CRM platform and employee collaboration tools to improve its customer experience.

The organization has three sets of customers -- individual donors, entrepreneurs and the banks that handle the microlending, said Gerard Niemira, director of product management. Kiva needed access to complete, though varying, information about each set of customers to tailor the company's interactions with those customers, he said. With lenders, for example, having access to their lending history is key.

"Someone who has done 1,000 loans -- we don't have to give them basic information. They've probably heard it 1,000 times," Niemira said. "Now customers get better answers because we have a more complete picture of how they've interacted with us in the past."

However, analysts say technology alone is not enough in achieving this 360-degree view of customers. Companies need to develop a strong understanding of who their customers are, said Corinne Sklar, chief marketing officer for Bluewolf, a global consulting firm. They also need to develop a culture of being "customer obsessed," she said.

"Technology is just an enabler," Sklar said. "Figuring out who your customers are has nothing to do with technology."

When a client comes to Sklar to get a 360-degree view of customers, her question is, "Why?" Companies have to identify a goal , she said. Are they trying to acquire customers, retain existing customers, cross-sell or up-sell, or reduce costs? Then, there needs to be a detailed analysis of the current customer experience to figure out what can be improved, she said.

Data silos are often a problem, Sklar said. Data integration is usually a priority, as is identifying any data that is missing and deciding which pieces of data are most important, she said. Sklar also recommended companies become more digital and cloud-focused because of the speed and flexibility a cloud environment provides.

Rich, the TM Forum director, said behavioral and cultural hurdles far overshadow technological issues when it comes to creating a 360-degree view. Organizations need to convince different departments to work as a team. Companies need to focus on the value of a 360-degree view to the organization, employee buy-in, training and making sure there is support from top management.

Most executives realize they need to move in the direction of a 360-degree view, Rich said. In a few short years, customer satisfaction has eclipsed financial issues as the most important priority in TM Forum surveys. But a 360-degree view isn't going to happen overnight, he said. Companies that try to make the transition all at once are more likely to fail than those that think strategically and move one step at a time.

"The key is thinking big and starting small," Rich said. "There's really no big bang in all of this."


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