Customer personalization now part of closing the deal

Companies want to use data to personalize customer interaction and boost sales. But data silos have left some adrift.

All companies want to forge more intimate connections with their audiences so they can sell more products. If the age of the customer has taught companies anything, it's that increasingly discriminating customers want companies to know who they are and what they want before the selling onslaught begins.

But for companies of all stripes, gathering this customer insight to develop meaningful relationships is tough. Companies' common refrain is that they have access to data about customer behavior from any communication channel they may interact in. Others pride themselves on their ability to combine customer interactions from multiple channels with other customer data, such as demographic information in a customer database, details about their preferences and more. 

But today, achieving this 360-degree view of customers is far more complex than companies imagine. They need good software tools to get it right. For many companies, it comes down to using marketing automation tools to get a reliable picture -- in real time -- of who customers are and what they need.

The basics of customer personalization

Amadori Group produces and sells meat products to various businesses throughout Italy. But with no storefronts and predominantly business-to-business (B2B) sales, it needed to broaden its insight about customers by personalizing customer experiences for visitors to its website.

"We are B2B," said Francesco Fabbri, chief digital officer at Amadori, "but we needed to become more B2B to C. We want to use digital channels to get in touch with our end customers and collect useful information, try to engage with them through digital content."

But today, achieving a 360-degree view of customers is far tougher than companies imagine.

With IBM WebSphere, a Web content management (WCM) system that organizes and publishes content to the Amadori website, the company can target individual consumers, company buyers and other visitors. Using taxonomy, or a system of site topic categorization, the site can dynamically display different content based on a visitor's profile. For example, it can show information about Amadori's products, with SKUs, specs and different pricing combinations based on whether a visitor is a company or an individual consumer. The company has also created a series of extranet pages for its salespeople to more readily access product information, which can help expedite sales.

But Fabbri readily admits that the process of targeting customers would be easier with an enterprise-class marketing automation suite. With marketing software, Amadori could more easily analyze customer behavior and send messages to the proper customer segment without having to use manual, time-consuming methods to get the same result.

"Without a marketing automation platform, it's very time-consuming to do," Fabbri said. "It's a lot of Excel."

Similarly for Netrepid -- a provider of colocation, infrastructure and application hosting services in Harrisburg, Pa. -- connecting customer Web activity with other data could provide a treasure trove of information. But connecting siloed customer data sources is largely theoretical. Jonathan Bentz, Netrepid's marketing manager, said the company could capitalize on opportunities to contact customers who are browsing the site and researching new services -- if only Netrepid could connect the dots quickly and use marketing automation software to contact that site visitor in real time.

"If I had some type of solution that could give updates for what customers are looking at and doing," Bentz said, "that might create a conversation that might not happen if we waited for the customer to come to us [to make a purchase]."

With a marketing automation system, Bentz hopes that when customers research a Netrepid service offering, like hosted Exchange, the company can gather data, combine it with other data about the user and contact the prospect in real time.

The data disconnect

Company success in forging these digital relationships hinges on understanding customer preferences so that a company can gear digital content and messaging to the proper audience segments.

But according to experts, creating a full picture of customers by joining Web data with other customer data that resides in back-end applications like customer relationship management (CRM) systems or enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and marketing automation software can be challenging. It's the exception rather than the rule when companies can combine their various sources of customer data, divine meaning from these data streams, and act on that information in short order. Too often, they say, data remains siloed or companies are paralyzed by the data overload.

"Companies should be using those digital initiatives and integrating them back into the core of their organizations, as opposed to leaving them as siloed initiatives that don't connect with anything else," said David Giannetto, senior vice president of performance management at Salient Corp. and author of Big Social Mobile. But currently, he said, most companies don't understand what to measure or how to integrate the metrics they gather from multichannel environments to create a larger picture of customer preferences.

The numbers support this picture. According to a survey conducted by Endeca Technologies, 50% of customers interact with an average of two touch points to research or purchase products, and 36% engage with an average of three.

At the same time, corporate data silos remain rife. According to the IBM study "Stepping up the Challenge," of more than 500 chief marketing officers, when asked to what degree they've implemented "integrated customer touch points across physical and digital channels," only 16% said to a "large extent," 38% said "somewhat" and 46% said "limited extent." Nearly half the respondents were wallowing in data silos.

Showing them you know them

San Francisco-based JustAnswer needs to have at-the-ready intelligence about its site visitors -- it's the only way to keep customers and prospects coming back. But the company -- which enables users to ask questions of experts in a variety of industries such as medical, legal, auto and pet care -- knew that a tone-deaf approach to interacting with customers often sends them defecting in disgust. So in mid-2013 it dumped its old email provider, which was slow and blind to customer preferences, and moved to Adobe Campaign, the marketing automation tool in the Adobe Marketing Cloud.

"If a customer asks a question, we don't want them to have to wait two hours for a response," said Kara Douglas, head of email marketing at JustAnswer. "Customers want that interaction in real time." The company was also missing opportunities to personalize communication with customers based on their site behavior and preferences.

If a customer doesn't feel like you know who they are and what they want, they will just move on to the next.
Kara Douglashead of email marketing, JustAnswer

"If a customer asks a question, we want to be able to go back to that customer and say, 'We see you had a legal question last time, but we have medical, auto, veterinary and other industries that you may be interested in,'" Douglas said.

JustAnswer also wanted to use insight to convert visitors who abandoned the site and their question by emailing them with, "'We noticed you were about to ask your question and didn't. We're still here if you want to ask,'" she said. Creating that personalized interaction is good customer service, but it's also a way to secure the sale. Today, JustAnswer is testing new approaches based on factors like seasonality. For example, during the winter months, it is tailoring messaging to a possible spike in questions related to cold weather. "Are you trying to heat up this winter?" might be a subject line, with offers to go on JustAnswer to get suggestions for fixing a snowblower or a broken water heater.

Another facet of the JustAnswer campaign involved trimming its email lists of inactive names. In the course of its efforts, it has boosted its engagement rating -- the percentage of email recipients who open and click on items within an email -- from 17% to 55%. But trimming the lists of deadweight names who had no interest in JustAnswer required a cultural shift in thinking -- at even the highest levels of the company -- about how to execute successfully. Initially, it was "a tough sell to my CEO," Douglas said. "He was all about the quantity. He would ask, 'If we have all these people in our database, why aren't we emailing them?' It took a lot of convincing and testing to show the value of improving the quality of the lists. It can be a tough sell internally."

Getting more personal

Douglas said now that JustAnswer has accomplished some personalization and list hygiene, it has several initiatives on the horizon. One is linking site visitors' IP addresses with other customer data to personalize messages even further based on their location, age and site behavior. For example, Douglas said the company could run a regional campaign "in Arkansas on Alzheimer's based on a study that was just released in that state." Another future initiative is to activate APIs that would enable contact center agents to view additional customer activity and site behavior as they review an account during a call. That unified view of customer information is often missing from customer service -- and a key component of customer satisfaction. JustAnswer is also toying with other multichannel approaches, such as video calls with experts to answer questions and SMS text alerts, rather than emails, to indicate that questions have been answered, which customers want. Douglas said that the company is also testing various ways to tailor messaging further.

For companies like JustAnswer, customer intelligence is the only way to differentiate in a cutthroat market, where increasingly discriminating customers are ready to turn on their heels and choose another company at the first sign that a company doesn't understand them.

And companies' increasing knowledge about customers also comes at a cost -- where companies can abuse that information with too much messaging or by failing to protect data adequately. "With great data comes great responsibility," said Maria Poveromo, senior director of public relations and social media at Adobe. Companies need to be "honest, open and transparent. They need to say to customers, 'This is the kind of data we track to improve customer experience. You can opt out at any time.' Because otherwise, you can get a serious backlash."

"If a customer doesn't feel like you know who they are and know what they want," Douglas said, "they will just move on to the next."

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