Three Ways Data Has Changed the CMO: Two Things to Look Out for and One Glimpse of What’s Next

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One thing most CMOs seem to agree on is that the availability of data and the ability to process it into information have dramatically shifted the role and effectiveness of marketing in an organization.  This data-centric approach to marketing has had several very positive effects on the function, including:

  • Increased accountability of marketing within an organization.
  • Increased effectiveness of programs with better targeting and knowledge of outcomes.
  • Better understanding of the contribution of marketing, resulting in more powerful CMOs.

The Impact of More and Better Data

Data cuts both ways.  It can help make decisions.  It can show you exactly what is happening in any given operation without introducing bias or opinion.  But it can also show you where you are achieving results and where you are not.  It can open a very clear window into the CMO’s performance, which allows for evaluation in ways that are far more objective than were previously possible.

Robert Carroll (@robcarroll), senior vice president of marketing for Gild, notes that just seven or eight years ago, “Marketing accountability didn’t exist.”  It’s not that there were not metrics, but it was much more difficult to establish hard-data success criteria.  With the rise of both CRM systems and marketing automation systems, the data has become available, and it can be turned into analyses that provide these criteria.

One notable way this has changed the marketing organization is in how results are measured.  With these systems and their underlying data in place, it is far easier to determine the exact outcomes of any given program, often from initial engagement all the way to closed sale.

While some organizations are still learning how to make this work for them, many marketing teams use a range of outcome measures such as engagement or conversion to determine everything from cost of sales to whether programs have targeted the right market.

This has also given rise to an opportunity to shift the way marketers operate.  The availability of hard data showing the effectiveness of specific activities and the speed with which that data becomes available allow marketers to try many different hypotheses about which specific items—such as target audiences, content pieces or messages—will be most effective in achieving any given objective.  It lets marketers do the kind of testing and retesting that makes success possible in experimental sciences (such as lab experiments) or in manufacturing design (such as rapid prototyping).

The data and systems are also helping marketers understand media in ways that our profession had only dreamed of.  We can tell exactly which media are most effective to carry our messages and reach our desired target.  Carroll notes, “Email is still the most effective media for outreach.”  But he also has seen a rise, especially with the increasing number of Millennials in both marketing organizations and as members of our target audiences, in the effectiveness of what we might call old-fashioned outreach methods.

“Most Millennials are not used to receiving a telephone call or a postal mailer,” Carroll says. “The sheer novelty of the outreach method is starting to show some unexpectedly positive results.”

While accountability and measurement, in and of themselves, are generally considered good things.  The result of this new level of accountability and the success that has accompanied means that CMOs are gaining more power in the organization.  Now that it is easier to quantify contribution, it’s also easier to show the exact effect the marketing organization has had on the overall business.

As a result, Carroll points out, “More and more, CMOs are becoming CEOs.”

In my own opinion, this also has the potential to result in organizations that are more focused on serving their markets and building better customer relationships.  It certainly will create a different kind of organization than those that followed the historical trend and were led by CFOs or operational executives.

Data Caution!

So far, it’s starting to sound like the rise of the data-based marketer has brought incredibly positive changes and garnered promotions for CMOs.  But the rise of data is also fraught with possibilities to go awry for CMOs:

  • Measurement measures failure just as effectively as it measure success.
  • Data can mislead as easily as it can reveal.

CMOs have jumped on the data bandwagon, and it is, without a doubt, changing their careers.  But where marketers were once able to explain away failure of programs with everything from rebranding to fancy footwork, the ability to look at the data can expose exactly where and why programs failed.  John Philpin, a serial CEO and author of Beyond Bridges, says “Marketers are being found out.”

Philpin also expresses an opinion common to many of us:  “Marketing is as much art as science.”  It’s hard to say that just because a program failed, and we can pinpoint the source of that failure, that the error did not lie in our approach, strategy, judgment, or other human-created idea that was an assumption of the program.

Data can also mislead.  There’s an old saying that the numbers (if you’re an accountant, or the analysis if you’re a statistician) can say whatever you want them to say.  We see this every day in social media where those with specific points of view create charts that appear to be authoritative but are clearly designed to lead the viewer to specific conclusions that benefit the creator.  This happens not just with political pundits, but with marketers as well. We would love to convince the entire world that it has the exact problem we can solve.  And then, of course, sell them the solution.

The data on which we rely for measuring our own success and for proving our success to our organization suffers from the same limitation.  It can be used to show the kind of outcomes we want to believe we have achieved and can be manipulated to hide the outcomes we know will not lead to proving our own effectiveness.

These two concerns—the exposure of failure and the inclusion of human judgment—along with the ability of data to mislead the reader show the limits of reliance on data as the sole measure of success and accountability for a CMO.  It is incumbent upon the CMO to know when data will be useful, how it is most useful, and when to rely on it as a measure of success.

What’s Next for CMOs and Data?

CMOs are seeing the opportunities brought by an increased ability to analyze data and are seeking ways to both expand data access and analysis and find more effective ways to understand and use data.

We’ve all heard about the rise of so-called big data, which Carroll calls “too buzzy” and Philpin calls “a misnomer.  Philpin goes on to add, “Big data is about the relationship among the data—not the data itself.”

Data gets “big” when there’s lots of it, notably more than traditional databases can handle. But it is just this ability to store and analyze unstructured and often unrelated data that can provide insights into our markets and our customers in ways we are only beginning to see.

Carroll sees how the mass of unrelated data Gild is pulling together has started to show them how best to reach their audience, such as where telephone and postal mail can be effective.  He also sees a bigger picture.  “Prepare to be disrupted,” he says, “and all of that data can point to a potential disruptor of your business.”  Since all businesses are potential targets of disruption, it seems like a valuable use of data.

I also agree with Philpin’s answer to my question, “Have you seen big data work in a marketing effort?”  He responded, “Squirrel!”  Staring at data for too long can distract you and lead you to conclusions that are mere mirages.  You start to see things that are just not really there.

More and better data and data analysis are critical to the future of marketing.  Even more critical, however, is the human ability to know how, when, and where to use that data.

Knowing how to turn data into useful information will become more and more important to the success of marketing organizations—and the CMO.

Chasms of Failure

Five Critical Steps to Knowing Your Customers

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It’s a trap into which marketers of all kinds fall:  assuming your customers are just like you in their preferences, desires, and buying characteristics.  It can happen because we lack information to figure out what customers are really like or because our own inherent biases cause us to ignore information that would contradict our assumptions.

In a series of studies (published in the AMA Journals), Hattula, Herzog, Dahl and Reinecke found that marketers putting themselves in their “customers’ shoes” were more likely to assume their customer is just like them rather than the generally expected outcome that they would understand their customer’s needs and desires even better.

In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Hattula noted, “That tendency [toward egocentrism] is so strong that we’re willing to ignore objective data when we make predictions about others.”

You Are Not Your Customers

Yes, he is saying that in our data-driven world, the more empathetic (and maybe more expert) we become, the more likely we are to just ignore the data and use our own intuition to make assumptions about our customers.  If you’ve been in a marketing organization for any length of time, this should not surprise you (though it may be hard to admit).

Simply put:  The more you assume your customer is just like you, the farther you get from building a relationship with and serving that customer.

In our daily lives, we develop relationships fully realizing that the people with whom we become friends or partners or any other form of relationship are not exactly like us.  Success in each relationship requires that we develop an understanding of what drives the other person and how we fit into their lives—and how they fit into ours.

Consider this:  You walk into a room, and a man approaches you.  He tells you why he is in that room (at that event or party) and then proceeds to tell you he knows you must be there for the same reason.  Maybe he harangues you to engage in ways that suit him well or to help him meet the people he wants to meet.  You can tell pretty quickly this person had no interest in you or your needs.

When you make the assumption that your customer is just like you, you start off your relationship with that customer on the footing I described in the previous paragraph:  you alienate your customer and make them feel like you have no real interest in meeting their needs.

This can be exacerbated by the common marketing practice of developing customer personas.  Personas are just descriptions of prototypical customer types.  If the egocentricity bias that Hattula describes enters your persona development process, the personas can start to look an awful lot like the people who are developing them (One way to check this is to ask someone who knows you but was not involved in the process to look at the persona and describe how much like you it is—as long as you can trust that person to give an honest answer.).

The Importance of Data

Marketing has become, for the most part, a data-driven endeavor.  Marketers work hard to gather and analyze data on the actions of those who engage with the company, on how those actions lead to (or don’t lead to) sales, on the costs and ROI of specific marketing activities, on how customer usage leads to repeat sales, and on so many more things in your everyday activities.  One of the things on which marketers have relied for a very long time is market research.  Assuming it uses well-designed research, the data gathered can inform many marketing decisions and challenge many assumptions.

But challenging assumptions, especially within an organization, is very hard.  When the data clearly contradicts any assumption we make about our customers—from buying habits to feature preferences—Hattula’s study shows we tend to just ignore the data—even when we know the best course of action is to adjust our own assumptions to match the data.

Where Does This Lead?

Hattula’s study suggests that employees who are disengaged from customers are in the best position to understand objectively what the data they receive is telling them.

My own experience says that getting a direct, personal understanding of your customer, including developing empathy (maybe by putting yourself in your customer’s proverbial shoes), gives you insights that data just can’t.

The irony is that in order to truly understand your customer well, you need to do a good job of both getting closer to them and distancing yourself from them.  You need to:

  1. Gain direct exposure, understanding and empathy with your typical customer’s needs, preferences and desires.
  2. Ensure you are gathering good, unbiased data on customers’ needs, preferences, and desires
  3. Pay close attention to even the smallest hint of contradiction between your empathetic understanding and what the data is telling you.
  4. Get objective viewpoints that can tell you when your assumptions about your customers are really just a projection of your own needs, preferences, and desires.
  5. Have the courage to challenge organizational assumptions about your customers.

Did I promise this would be easy?  It’s not.

But if you want to stay close to your customers and continue to succeed in delivering what they want and need, in the way they want and need it, you will have to make sure you are meeting their needs.

Not yours.

Customer Trust

Are You Really Customer-Centric? Or Is It Just Talk?

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It seems every company wants to show just how customer-centric it is these days.  It’s increasingly common to hear PR machines toss around phrases such as, “We value our customers,” or “We put our customers at the center of our business.”

But it’s easier said than done.  When it comes time to make a decision that pits customer interests against a chosen corporate strategy, do you really make decisions that put your customers first?

A.P. Giannini, founder of Bank of America, said, “The purpose of a business is to create a customer.”  If, in the process of evolving your business, you choose to forsake some (or all) of your customers, you not only have no longer put customers at the center of your business but also have given up the business those customers represent.

A recent stark example of the conflict between a chosen corporate strategy and a customer-centric one is the recent decision by Starbucks to close a number of its brands, including San Francisco icon La Boulange.

La Boulange is a chain of bakery cafes in San Francisco that has a reputation for quality food at reasonable prices and has earned the trust and devotion of San Francisco Bay Area locals. This is important to this story, as earning the trust of San Franciscans, as a whole, is not easy, and locals tend to fiercely defend local brands, often at the expense of national brands.

When Starbucks acquired La Boulange in April 2013, there was a local uproar.  Would they keep the beloved cafes open?  Would we be deprived of La Boulange baked goods?  What would happen to the people working at them?

Starbucks is one of those companies that claims to employ a customer-centric business strategy.  Putting customers first means making a promise to those customers, then keeping that promise.  And, of course, not breaking it.  Starbucks made a promise. They kept that promise—until they broke that promise by making a decision that clearly put their chosen corporate strategy ahead of their customers’ wishes.

Make a promise:  At the time of the acquisition, Starbucks stated it would keep the cafes open and even offer La Boulange baked goods in its Starbucks coffee shops.

Keep a promise:  It held to this promise.  It even opened more locations of La Boulange during the two years since the acquisition.

I cannot overemphasize this point:  Starbucks made and kept a promise to the segment of consumers who value and frequent La Boulange.  San Franciscans breathed a collective sigh of baked-good-induced relief.

Break a promise:  Last week, Starbucks announced it would close all La Boulange locations by the end of September 2015.

The justification for the decision was, in Starbucks’ words, “Starbucks has determined La Boulange stores are not sustainable for the company’s long-term growth” and that the decision was made because “Starbucks continually evaluates all components of its business to confirm they are aligned with key priorities and strategies for growth, which includes the continued analysis of the store portfolio.”  Notably, the decision was not made based on profitability, as the company claims the La Boulange brand achieved 16% year-over-year growth, and industry reports show that the newly opened stores far exceeded expectations.

In a company that claims to put its customers first, what is missing from this decision is any consideration of the promise to the customers.

Which brings me to the difficult question Starbucks faced:  Do we follow our chosen corporate strategy or do we make our strategic decisions by putting our customers first?  I wonder how you or I would make the same decision.

Traditional corporate strategy says a company should choose its competencies, market, and customer segment, pursue them to the exclusion of other options, re-evaluate those choices periodically (or continually), and make adjustments.

Customer-centric strategy demands a different approach.  If the customer is truly at the center of your business, then your business must choose its competencies, approach, and services to focus on the needs (known, unknown, or even unanticipated) of the customer. This is true whether your customer is an individual consumer or another business.

Making the choice between a chosen strategy and customer-centricity is not always as stark or obvious as it is in this case.  Companies face decisions every day that pit delivering value to customers against the chosen strategy of the business.  If your company chooses the chosen strategy and moves away from the customer it created, it must either create a new customer or face the fact that it no longer has a business (at least in that segment).

Starbucks’ mission statement is “to inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”  The core Starbucks brand will continue to do that. But the La Boulange brand did that exact same thing for a different customer in a different way (appropriate to that different customer).  Despite Starbucks’ statement that this decision was one that keeps their mission intact, it seems that the other decision (to keep La Boulange open) would have done that as well.

So, while the decision does not directly conflict with the mission statement, it does conflict with any claim of customer-centricity.

All of which presents us with a stark example of how even the best companies make difficult strategic decisions when customer interests collide with a chosen strategy.

Have you faced such a decision?  How have you handled it?


Building a Career after 50: The Chopped-Liver Effect

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I was once heir to a chopped-liver dynasty.  Really.  When you get to the inevitable part of any team development activity where you are asked to go around the room and tell everyone something about you they may not already know, I say that.  And there’s a good story behind it with some excellent career lessons.  I’ll come back to that.

How I Got Here

When I turned 50, I had a good job with a large, fairly stable company.  My career, up to that point, had been a series of similar jobs.  Most were in marketing or related areas, and there was what HR folks call a good progression of responsibilities.  I was not the most successful 50-year-old in the business, but I was happy with my progress to that point.

I also knew on the day I turned 50 that everything was about to change.  I learned a lot along the way, about both my chosen profession and how I am happiest contributing.  I also learned a bit about myself (see this piece I wrote for Psychology Today).  All this led me to the conclusion that I did not want to go where my trajectory was taking me.

This, I soon discovered, is the hardest kind of change to make for oneself.  It required not only stepping out of the traditional roles and work to which I’d become accustomed, but also two of the hardest personal projects I’ve undertaken:  defining what the new trajectory of a career after 50 would look like and redirecting nearly 30 years of career momentum.

Defining a new trajectory sounds pretty simple:  take those things you like to do and figure out how to get people to pay you to do them.  But, most career coaches will tell you what I also learned:  it’s much more than that.  You have to find the way in which you like to contribute, then figure out what kind of work that means you have to do—which might also mean finding or creating work you have never seen—then figuring out how to get people to pay you to do that work.  Plus, as a marketer, I had to explore in greater depth what value I would be bringing to the market and whom my customer would be.

I landed on a goal of building my own business:  consulting, writing, and maybe speaking. That was just the way in which I wanted to contribute.  If you’ve read my earlier posts, you know I talk largely about business relationships, specifically those between a company and its customers.  This is the path I have chosen.  After all those years in marketing—the past decade or so in businesses where customer relationships were the drivers of success—I realized this was not only something about which I cared deeply but also something that was incredibly valuable to many companies and where there was a substantial market needing help.

After four years of trying to make this a success, I have found a few things about building a career after 50:

  • It’s never linear. I have been lucky enough to have some interesting consulting engagements.  Some of those are exactly what I expected.  Others, not so much. The theme of customer relationships did run through everything I’ve done so far but hardly in the way I expected, in many cases.
  • It’s hard. There is such strong interest in this area and so many companies in need, I figured this would be just a matter of finding the right buyer for my services—and I’d be too busy for my own good.  Not exactly. After three years of struggling with the fact that the industry didn’t even have the right buyer (which changed, thankfully), I now find myself doing what every one of you who runs a consulting firm is doing:  selling hard and often and in ways I never expected.
  • It’s discouraging. I’m 54 now and am not the wildly successful, world-famous, notable consultant and author I expected to be.  The reality does not yet match, but the expectation remains.

One way I keep myself going is to remember my own inspiration.

The Chopped-Liver Dynasty

I’ve studied business and marketing extensively and worked in the field for more than 30 years.  Yet I attribute much of what I know, including my instincts, to my grandparents, who started and ran their own successful business.

They were immigrants from Eastern Europe.  They came to the United States with very little.  They worked and saved and got help from family and, eventually, started a luncheonette (today, we’d call it a diner).  My grandmother made chopped liver from her own recipe for sandwiches (in the New York Jewish community of the 1930s to 1950s, this was very popular).  Eventually, people started asking her to send them home with some extra chopped liver for their dinner, and she started selling it.  It became popular enough that my grandparents eventually closed the luncheonette and opened a business making and selling chopped liver.  By the early 1970s it had become the largest selling brand of kosher frozen chopped liver in the United States.

There were lots of lessons I learned as a kid and young adult listening to my grandmother telling me how they got the business started, how they sold the chopped liver, how they created distribution and sales channels, and so much more.

I’ve always admired the story, and by the time I was a teenager, I knew that my goal was —and still it today—to grow up to be just like my grandmother.

Am I There Yet?

A few weeks ago, I was considering how to adjust my own path to make my goal of consulting, writing, and speaking work better for me.  I was starting to think about how I am getting older, how businesses are less and less likely to seek out older people to meet their needs (see this rather discouraging piece from CNN), and how I was starting to feel more and more rushed to reach some as-yet-undefined milestone of success for my own efforts.

Then I thought about my grandparents’ business and what I could learn from it, and I did some math.  I realized my grandmother was in her mid-50s when they launched the chopped-liver business (my grandfather was about 60).  When I was old enough to be aware of their success, it felt to me like they had been successful forever, but it had only been 10 or 15 years.

Here I am in my mid-50s, relaunching my own business effort, a career after 50.  Suddenly, I know it’s not too late.  I know this is a good time to be in my own business.  I know I have just learned one more thing from my grandparents:  it’s not too late to get started.  But you do have to get started.

I’ll keep you posted on where this takes me.  I hope my story will help if you’re feeling a bit washed up and unsure of your next step.  Just go.  And in fewer years than you imagine, you’ll have stories to tell and lessons to pass on, and everyone will just assume you’ve always been successful.  At least I hope it works that way for me, too.


Rethinking Customer Marketing for the Subscription Economy

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This is not your grandfather’s customer marketing.  A business that depends on—or hopes to depend on—subscription (or recurring) revenue must relate to its customers in a fundamentally different way than a traditional one-time-sale business.  But the changes go deeper than just the customer relationship. To be successful in a subscription business, companies must rethink their own business operations.  Let’s take a look at what that means for marketing.

The question I ask you is simple:  are you actually marketing to your customers?  Or are you just keeping in touch and hoping they’ll stick around?

Customer marketing is one of the simplest business changes you can make to succeed in the recurring revenue business.  You don’t need any new skills or expertise, and the processes you need already exist (I hope) in your current organization.  The work you need to do is translating them to apply to your current customers.

The Journey and the Funnel

You have, undoubtedly, spent much of your marketing career thinking about—and seeing many different flavors of—the marketing funnel.  I’m going to guess your idea of a marketing funnel or customer journey looks something like this:

This gives your marketing organization a good working model and, I hope, a deep understanding of how someone in the market becomes aware of your product or service and how they get from initial awareness to making the decision to purchase.

You also have a set of processes and practices that make your marketing work, make potential customers aware of your offerings and help them make the decision to purchase. These include marketing campaigns and programs, content development and distribution, branding efforts, and much more.

I hope in reading this so far, you’re thinking:  “Yes, I do all of that really well.  Why do I need to rethink this?”

Customer Marketing:  Before

You might have a function in your marketing organization called customer marketing. Depending on how you’ve organized your team, this function does anything and everything from customer references, to success stories, to customer events and conferences, and to customer loyalty programs.  You probably also have a way to keep customers informed of new products, updates, and other information you consider important, or that you think will help customers decide to buy from you again.

Rethinking from Day One

Day One is the day your customer becomes your customer, the day after the contract is signed, the day the customer starts getting value from your product or service.

It’s also the day your sales and marketing organizations step out of the picture and hand that customer off to your customer success organization.  Every day from then until the customer leaves you, the primary contact for that customer will be in your customer success organization.  That organization is then tasked (maybe via its own sales team) with ensuring your customer renews their subscription or comes back to you year after year.

In a recurring revenue business, the repeat or renewal sale is just as important as the initial sale.  Sometimes, we assume this sale is easier because we’re dealing with a customer who has already decided they get value from our offering.  That makes it no less important.

Rethinking customer marketing means treating your new actual customer on Day One just like the new potential customer who has only just become aware of your offering.  Day One begins a whole new marketing and sales cycle.  Day One means building a whole new relationship with your customer.

Customer Marketing:  After

The goal is simple:  keep as many customers as you can.

The process is simple:  apply your current marketing funnel or journey, programs, and processes to your current customers.

The transition is not so simple:  learn how your customers go from new customers on Day One to a renewal sale.  Then how they do that again next year.  And again the following year.

The transition requires you to examine both your business and your customers in new ways. You need to ask:

  • Why do my customers renew (not your long held beliefs; look at the data), why don’t they, and how do I tell the difference between customers who renew and customers who don’t?
  • What actions do I take right now that make a difference (again, based on the data) in whether customers renew?
  • How am I helping my customers realize value and renew?
  • Are my internal incentives (marketing, sales, and customer success) aligned with a goal of maximizing renewals?

Then you need to redefine your customer funnel or journey. It will look something like this:

Then you need to design marketing and sales programs, campaigns, and other efforts around that to help your customers move from purchase to renewal (not to frustration and departure).

Organizations that do this successfully create a microcosm of a marketing team within the customer success organization.  This becomes a team that is charged with the full range of marketing and marketing operations functions (except corporate branding and PR, generally), and is measured on the same goals and outcomes as the marketing organization such as leads (which become expansion or adoption programs), conversions to sales (which become integration and realization of value), and sales (which become renewals).

Transformation to Customer Marketing

Rethinking customer marketing as though it were a full marketing function changes the way you relate to your customers.  It can also have dramatic effects on the success of your renewal programs, bringing your renewal rates to new heights and your churn rates to new lows.

And, if you are having great conversations with potential customers in your market, imagine how valuable those conversations will be once your current customers—your loyal fans—are part of them.

How is your organization evolving customer marketing?  Tell us in the comments!

Customer Success

Customer Service Success Is So Simple that It’s Hard

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We all love to complain about customer service.  Most of us have some sort of nightmare story at the ready anytime the conversation turns to the topic of customer service.  And collectively, we have classes of companies we just love to hate:  airlines and cable providers.

I know you can tell any number of stories about how some company (Comcast, anyone?) got it wrong (check out Mr. A**hole Brown has a really good one post).  I’m willing to bet you even have a few choice suggestions on how to get it right.

But your suggestions will likely only fix the issue in your case (or your type of case).  The company that is failing at customer service has a much deeper problem.

The issue is simple:  lack of empathy.  But the solution, which is also so simple—create empathy in your customer service staff for customer service success—is, in fact, very hard to make happen.

Why Is It Hard To Achieve Customer Service Success?

Allow me to start with an idea that will sound familiar from my earlier posts:  When someone buys a product or service from you, they are doing so because they expect that product or service to do a specific job for them.  Sticking with my favorite scapegoat, when someone buys cable television service from Comcast, they are expecting Comcast to deliver entertainment on which they can rely at all hours.

Here’s where it gets complicated (frankly, it’s not really all that complicated for Comcast, but it is for most companies).  The definition of “entertainment” varies widely among the millions of people who are Comcast customers.  Personally, I want my cable company to bring me intelligent, unbiased, detailed news coverage any time of day (largely the responsibility of the news outlets and not even within the control of a cable provider).  Or you might want access to a huge library of foreign films.  Someone else might want endless reruns of TV shows from the 1970s.

Sounds pretty simple for a cable provider, right?  So where do they go so wrong?

Customer service doesn’t happen until something goes wrong.  Service is out.  Channels with my entertainment disappear, or worse, move to a higher tier of premium cost.  Or the CableCARD stops working with the latest update of my DVR.

Then I have to call (chat, e-mail, whatever).  Someone explains the process of why it’s broken.  Then they explain the process the company has set up to fix it.  It’s going to take time.  It’s going to cost me money.  It’s going to require that I sit at home and wait for someone to show up.

There’s a lot of process.  There’s a way to handle the situation.  But there’s no empathy. There’s no one who is capable of understanding why I am actually disappointed and figuring out the best (maybe even the right) way to make sure I get what I need.

Empathy is not a process.  It’s not a set of rules.  It’s not a policy.  It is a human ability. And it requires the one thing the giant customer service organization fears most:  individual freedom to act.

Halfway There

I have a lot of respect for Frank Eliason.  If you don’t know who he is, he is the guy who started @ComcastCares, Comcast’s Twitter based customer service.  It’s generally believed that he singlehandedly taught the corporate world what social customer service means.

Frank recently wrote an article exhorting Comcast to improve its customer service.  He included five suggestions on what they could do to improve.  The last of these was, “Live up to being the Philadelphian that you already are.  We will support you, but you need to support us too.  Treat us in the same manner you would want to be treated.”

I don’t disagree with his first four suggestions.  But they are all process improvement ideas. They don’t do anything at all to get your customer service staff to understand your customers’ problems and help bring solutions that address the actual issues right there and then.

The fifth suggestion (quoted above) gets closer to the mark.  It doesn’t say it the way I would, but it suggests that each and every customer service representative needs to be a decent upstanding human to create successful customer service.  That sounds a bit like empathy to me.

Getting it Right? 

It is nearly impossible to train empathy into an organization.  It’s a uniquely individual skill. People can have empathy, while organizations can’t.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t let your customer service people use the empathy they already have.

Companies such as Nordstrom and Zappos became customer service success standouts for one reason:  every single employee can do (nearly) anything to solve a customer’s problem.  On the margin, this led to stories (unconfirmed) of things such as a customer returning a set of tires to Nordstrom (which has never sold tires), but these stories are a very small group of exceptions to the rule.

The policy of “do whatever it takes to make it right” doesn’t just let the front line employee use their skill and empathy; it challenges them to do so.  Even better, it challenges them to create a story in that customer’s mind about how amazing the customer service provided by that employee was. And it creates a culture that makes employees want to be better at serving customers with empathy because their peers are also doing it.

These companies don’t train an organization to deliver empathy.  They created a culture of customer service success that valued it, paid attention to it in hiring, and challenged their people to do it—and do it better.  This requires trust (often anathema to many large hierarchical corporations) as well as a different approach to dealing with your own people and your customers.

Can You Change?

The obvious question is can a company such as Comcast really change?  Could it ever figure out how to change from a policy- and practice-driven organization to one that lets their people make their own judgments about what is the best practice in every individual situation?

It would be hard.  And it would take time.  Maybe for Comcast, their newly hired chief customer officer will be a start.

What about your organization?  Are you telling your people how to solve your customers’ problems?  Or are you hiring amazing people and letting them figure it out?  If you are the former, can you change?  Do you think your organization can help your people develop empathy?

Customer service success is so simple that it’s hard.

Tell us in the comments how you think your organization might do it.


Requiem for the Home Page: Rethinking Website Architecture

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The Home Page is dead!  Long live the Home Page!  That might be overstating it a bit, but it’s well past time to rethink our approach to website architecture.

Evolving Website Architecture

I’ve been involved in website architecture, design, redesign, and rebuilding projects in various ways during the past decade.  In this time, nearly everything has changed about how companies communicate with customers and prospects.  We’ve become comfortable with email as a marketing tool—in fact, we’ve become pretty good at it.  Printed mail certainly has not gone away (judging by my mailbox this week), but we’ve found effective ways to replace some printed media and blend print and email.

We’ve become social.  Do you remember your social media presence in 2004?  I’m guessing not, primarily because you didn’t have one.  Twitter didn’t exist, and Facebook was the cool new thing on Harvard’s campus.  Now, most companies have some sort of social media presence, and the ones that are doing it well are integrating social media directly into their communication with prospects and customers.

In 2004, even search marketing (both SEO and SEM) were hardly in use.  We were still figuring out how that worked, which gave rise to the seemingly endless supply of people who spend their time trying to outwit Google’s search algorithm (and Bing’s and Yahoo’s and…).

But in the same decade that saw the creation and explosion of email, search marketing, and social media, website architecture has been virtually unchanged.  We still build websites in the same traditional structure as we did in the late 1990s:  We start with a home page that summarizes our company and brand message, include a hierarchy of pages (products, solutions, about us, careers…sound familiar?) that describe everything we want visitors to see when they show up.

We’ve seen tremendous advances in website design:  from the “above-the-fold” designs of the 2000s to the current trend of responsive, parallax, and endlessly scrolling websites designed for the ever increasing number of devices we use to visit these sites.

If you’ve read my previous posts, you know I tend to focus not on what your company wants to say but what your prospects and customers want to hear—and how they want to hear it.

Looking at it from that perspective, we’ve learned one very important lesson in the past decade about how visitors, prospects, and customers use our website:  People come to the site looking for something.  They want to go directly to whatever that particular thing is on our site and skip all the other stuff.

Some visitors take advantage of the hierarchical structure of the site to find what they need.  Many, many more come in directly to some specific page on our site as the result of a Google search. Many come to our site as a result of an email or social media campaign directing them to a landing page.  And some come to a specific page on our site through referral (a link sent to them, posted somewhere, etc.) or other various means.

We even spend time designing click paths through our websites both to serve specific kinds of visitors and to encourage them to take actions we design.

Improving Website Architecture

This means the way we build websites has no relationship whatsoever to how visitors use them.

What can we do differently?

A modest proposal:  Outside–in architecture.

Let’s go back to that idea of click paths.  We know how to do that (at least some do, and most of the rest of the marketing world is learning).  We also know that pretty much every single person who visits our website will have a click path that is unique to them and serves well the visitor profile (or persona) they fit.

My proposal:  Build for that.

Take the personas (or whatever method you use for profiling visitor needs) and the click paths and needs you’ve already figured out.  Build those pages.  Put the right information, content, and calls-to-action on those pages that lead where you think that person wants to go.

Then do it with every single profile/persona you have built (and maybe a few on the edge that don’t visit as often).

Then you will have a jumble of pages that meet defined click paths.

Every single one of those journeys through your site starts with some inquiry, and most (we hope) end in some action, even if it’s just reading information.

Arrange your starting points in a circle (conceptually or on your design board).  Lay out the paths moving toward the center of that circle.  They will overlap.  Some will spiral.  Some will go straight to the center.  Some will stop halfway.

But you will find significant overlap among your paths.  Many different kinds of visitors need the same information at different points in their journey through your site.

Each of those landing pages and stopping points becomes a page.  If you’ve taken into account all the types of visitors who come to your site (don’t forget job seekers, investors, researchers, etc.), then you’ll also find you’ve included all the information you need.  And anything that is not there, by definition, is not needed by your visitors and does not need to be on your website.

We know where our visitors land or start.  We have a pretty good idea of where they go and how they get there.  Why not build  our websites around that journey and make it easy for them to get there and engage with us they way they want to—and, ultimately, the way we want them to.

What do you think?  Have you done this?  Have you taken an unconventional approach to website architecture?  Tell us in the comments!

Customer Trust

Customer Retention Is Also about Keeping Your Promises

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If you’re reading this, you likely already know your brand is your promise to your customers.  But there is an important extension to this:  keeping customers means keeping your promises.

Let me tell you the story of what just happened to me (I admit this is a bit of a rant, but if you’ve been following my customer retention stories, you know how I love to pick on the companies with the worst customer service—they are fantastic examples of what not to do).

This story is about my mobile phone upgrade.  You’re probably not surprised to learn I have not been thrilled with my mobile phone carrier.  When my contract was up and the new devices became available, it was time to upgrade.  I did my homework, calling and asking lots of detailed questions about devices and plans.  I got great answers from very helpful people.

In other words, they made me a promise.  They made promises about the features and plans, and more importantly, they made promises (implicitly) about the kind of service I would receive (friendly and helpful, making the upgrade process easy and smooth).

When it came time to place the order, things started to go wrong, and small issues turned into big issues, leaving me wanting to switch to another carrier.  First, when I called to place the order, I was told I could only do that online.  Just a small inconvenience, so I tried online.  Even though I was out of contract, they wanted to charge me a fee for upgrading (this is a common, if customer hostile, practice).  I called to complain and was put on hold, then transferred to three (!) different departments.  Then I was told this fee was required, and that I could not upgrade my phone without it.  And no, not even if I paid full price for an unlocked phone could I avoid this fee.

More than an hour later (trying my patience), I hung up and called another carrier.  They agreed to sell me new phones (the same model) with a similar plan without any fees to get started.  The only reason I did not sign up right there and then was a small technical feature I need—which they do not have.

So I called back my old carrier and told them I would leave if they didn’t waive the fees and process my order without further hassles.  I was transferred to the “customer retention department.”

As you probably know, these are the people whose job it is to handle the angriest customers and the worst customer service mistakes the company has made to improve customer retention.  The mere fact a customer retention department exists means customer service is failing (If you have such a customer retention department in your company, I advise you to do a better job of customer service).  They succeeded (they were nice, apologetic and made the process easy for me), and I renewed and upgraded.

But they’d made me a promise:  an easy process with no hassles.  They broke their promise and failed in every possible way to deliver.  Then they were forced to spend time, effort, and money to “retain” me.

If you’ve dealt with customer service or even customer retention departments, you probably have at least a few stories that sound just like this or maybe worse.  But this, as I noted above, is the bad example.

What you can do to avoid having a customer retention department and doing this to your customers is simple:  keep your promises.

When a customer comes to make a purchase—any kind of purchase —make them a promise.  Your promise is not just that the product or service you sell will perform an expected task, but it is a promise about the kind of service you will offer, what the buying experience will be like (now and every time they come back), what their experience will be using the product, how they will feel about your product, and how your product will affect their reputation.

The single biggest mistake companies make when they are seeking repeat or return business is breaking promises.

As a consumer, you know what it feels like to have a company break a promise.  You are left with a sour taste and a desire to seek out competitors.  Sometimes you switch, but even if you stay put, you are not a happy customer.

In your business, you are probably breaking promises to your customers far more often than you think (and certainly far more often than they are telling you).  Without your customers’ willingness to tell you every single time you break a promise, how do you know?

Here are two questions you must ask for effective customer retention:

  1.  What promises are you making to your customers? Make sure you know every single promise your customers  think you are making and not just the ones you want to make.
  2.  Which promises do your customers value? Companies break promises all the time, but most of the promises  broken are unimportant to their customers.  Find out what’s important to your customers.

Once you know the answer with a great deal of certainty, you are left with the very hard customer retention work (don’t underestimate this) of finding out how you are breaking those important promises.  It might be in very small ways (oops, we forgot to tell you we charge $40 to upgrade your phone.  Didn’t you read the small print?  And if your agent starts quoting small print or company “policy” to your customer, you have blown it).  You will have to look hard.

You’ll probably have to do the hardest thing of all:  get outside your view as a representative of your company and step into the view of your customer.  Live the experience your customer has with you as if you are your customer.  You might be surprised at what you find.

In my experience working with companies whose business depends on having customers come back again and again, the work of fixing the issues you find is the easiest part.  Often there are some simple tweaks to your processes that will help.  Almost always, giving your employees on the front lines the authority to solve customers’ problems will solve most of your customer retention problems.

No matter what kind of business you are in, you depend on customers coming back. Breaking your promises in important ways (even if the importance is small) can ensure they never do come back. If you are in a recurring revenue and custom retention business, broken promises will certainly spell the end of your company.

Please share how you found out about your own broken promises and how you fixed them in the comments.

Customer Success

Four Steps to Fixing Your Biggest Customer Service Mistake

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There’s one big mistake you can make in your customer service, and, if you’ve read my earlier posts, you know this is a pet peeve of mine:  Letting your process and policies govern how you deal with people.

This often happens even in the best customer service organizations.  In fact, this one mistake can sour great service more often in companies already known for great customer service than in ones where there is little or no customer service in the first place (though sometimes this is true because there is no service to sour in the latter set of companies!).

My Customer Service Experience

Here’s what one recent experience I had looked like:

My computer (partially) died.  It could do a few simple things, but it was useless for anything significant and pretty much stopped all my work and productivity.  My computer is from a company known for great customer service.  So I called.

They sent a technician to my office the next business day with a replacement part.  He opened up the computer, did his work, and left in less than an hour.  I was thrilled.

The people were helpful and friendly, the service was quick and personalized, and what could have been a lengthy loss of time and work for me turned into a quick repair without my ever leaving the office

Then things went sour.  It turns out there were two parts that needed to be replaced, and the technician didn’t know this.  But the company acted quickly, and the next day he was back replacing the second part, avoiding a potentially poor customer service outcome.

But while the technician was working on the second part, he broke an even more critical part.  He then spent two more hours in my office trying desperately—and unsuccessfully—to fix it.

So, again, I called.  The customer service department wanted to send him out a third time with a replacement for the broken part.  This was just a bit too intrusive for me.  The next best offer from customer service was for me to ship my entire computer to them—and be without it for 10 days.

Yes, there’s a lot of drama behind this story.  But the point is that it started out as a fantastic experience based on a set of customer service policy rules that allows the company to provide me with great initial service.  Then it turns quickly sour because the same set of policy rules which are intended to make the service great end up creating more pain for the customer.

And yes, you’ve done this to your customers.  I don’t know if you do it all the time, but I’m sure it’s happened.  And I’m sure you looked at how it happened and decided that the policies in place were really best overall and that the particular case was unusual.  But we’re all the unusual case.

How do you redesign your customer service policies to delight your customers─and keep delighting them even if things go wrong?

Develop People Centered Customer Service

Most customer service processes are designed to keep interactions short, solve problems quickly, and get cases closed as fast as possible.

People centered customer service does not lengthen the process.  Rather, it changes the policies and procedures so they work around how your customer works and what is happening to them.

Sometimes changing this focus is easy.  Car dealership service departments have been notoriously customer hostile, and they take your car (usually your primary mode of transportation) away for some inconveniently long period of time.  The key issue is that the car owner’s life revolves around his or her car, and loss of the car is a pretty big deal.

The solution to that, at least for some dealerships, was to set aside a fleet of loaner cars. Now, for some cars, when you take your car in for service, you drive away in a loaner car (if yours is like mine, a newer and nicer car than yours!) which you use until your car is fixed. Transportation problem and intrusiveness problems solved.

In my computer situation, the company was so focused on getting quick, personal (on-site) repairs scheduled, that they lost site of why it is an issue for me.  They forgot that my primary means of working is my computer.  They forgot that sending someone to my office to fix it is intrusive.  They forgot that every time they do a repair, I then have no computer for ten to twelve hours while my backup restores.

There was no process in place to allow the company to ask whether one more day, one more on-site visit, or one more restore would be just too much for me (The end of the story and the right answer is that they are sending a new computer but only after way too many hours on the phone arguing).

How do you implement people centered customer service in your organization?  Here are four steps:

1.)  Develop a model that helps you understand your customer’s life surrounding your products.

You might already do this to some extent for your marketing efforts.  And if you have lots of different kinds of customers who use your products in different ways, you will have to develop something such as marketing personas for describing the various situations.

Your model needs to ask questions such as:  How does this customer use the product?  How critical is the product to their work or life?  What will happen in the customer’s life if he or she is without the product for a period of time?

2.)  Develop your service, support, and repair procedures to fit the scenario this customer faces.

Ask questions such as:  How much are you requiring the customer to do on their own?  Can they do it, and do they have the skills?  Is it best for them to do it themselves?  How much can you do for them without intruding on their routine?  How can you choose routes to the solution that fix the problem effectively but minimize how much it affects the customer?

3.)  Ask.

Before you insist that there is a defined next step in solving the problem, ask the customer if that next step is reasonable.  Taking the same step three or four times may seem right to you, but it might not work for your customer.

4.)  Consider the context and what came before.

When you offer a next step in a solution, look at what came before.   Have you put the customer through significant burdens in the previous steps?  Are you asking them to accept the same burden one more time?  Your process and policies need to consider that when the problem is not solved on the first try, the tolerance of the customer is often challenged in subsequent attempts.

Don’t forget that this applies not only to previous attempts to solve the issue at hand but also to how you handled issues in the past.  If you need to ask the customer to do some work to resolve the issue, you need to know if this is the fifth time in six months you are asking.

Make sure your process allows for escalation and severity increases that go along with failures to fix the issue.

If you can design those four steps into your customer policies and processes, you will go a long way to making your customers happy—and keeping them happy.

And we know that a recurring or repeat customer is the most profitable of all.

Let us know how you are making your customer service people centric.

Customer Success

How Do You Define Customer Success?

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Customer success is a very hot topic (rightfully so).  With the rise of the subscription economy, companies are more obligated than ever to make sure their customers are happy with their products and services.  Companies from to Dollar Shave Club are adding “customer success’ departments (or the like), appointing chief customer officers and finally paying attention to what happens after the initial sale.

But what constitutes “customer success?”  Regardless of your business, it’s a hard question to answer.  For a company such as, one customer might be successful if they use the software to track and report on sales reps, but another might be successful if they can establish and enforce a sales process.  For a company such as Dollar Shave Club, a customer might be successful if they get a close shave from the razor blades, while a different customer might be very happy as long as the blades are delivered on time.

Not My Definition of Customer Success

Here’s a personal story of how a large subscription economy company failed to understand customer success:

A few weeks ago, I was watching television one evening.  The picture became pixilated and then disappeared, leaving me staring at a blank screen (Have you guessed that I’m going to pick on my favorite target:  my cable television provider?). After ruling out all the other equipment in my home, I determined the CableCARD device that my cable company provides was malfunctioning (A CableCARD allows a third-party device to decode the encrypted signal sent by the cable company, meaning you don’t need extra boxes in your house…sometimes.).

When I called the cable company’s “customer success” line, they walked through it with me again and agreed with my conclusion:  the problem was with the CableCARD.  They said they would send a technician to install a new one in three days.

Three days (!) seemed a long time to wait just to be able to watch television again.  When I challenged this, I was told:

This is not a priority issue.  We are successfully delivering a signal to your home, and a malfunctioning CableCARD is not important enough for us to send someone tonight or tomorrow.

I reiterated that I felt they were leaving me without their service for three days, and that this is a failure to deliver the service promised.  They reiterated:

We are successfully delivering signal to your home, so we are successfully providing service.”

Our definitions of “success” did not match.  Theirs was “signal on the cable wire,” while mine was “seeing a picture on my television” (I’ll spare you the rest of the argument; it didn’t go well from my perspective.).  Maybe there are other customers who use their signal differently and who consider “signal on the wire” to be success, regardless of whether their TV is watchable.  Not I.

As I reflected on this discussion, I thought about all the other companies that fail to make sure I am using their service successfully, and only focus on the limited set of issues they choose to define as success.

recent study showed that 53% of Americans would choose to switch cable providers if they had the choice (cable television service is a monopoly in many parts of the country).  If the monopoly is broken, it does not bode well for these providers.  Not only does it mean customers will be looking to leave and take their recurring revenue elsewhere, but it opens the market for disruptive competitors who may be more than happy to meet the needs that the current providers are not meeting.

The important question for your business is this:

Do you know how your customers define “success”?

If you don’t know that, you can’t help your customers be successful. And their definition is the only one that matters (cable companies, be damned).

An Approach to Customer Success

One company that is making a good effort at answering this question is Contactually (a social CRM product I use in my own work).  Susan Watkins, their newly appointed head of customer success, tells me that when a customer shows up, Contactually contacts the customer and offers to help them get started, including personal tutorials on how to do the things the customer hopes to do with the product.

In that process, they discover how the customer intends to use Contactually—and how the customer defines success.  When renewal time comes, they can then contact the customer and, instead of just asking for a renewal, ask how they are doing against that definition of success and how Contactually can help them be more successful.

Their data is not in yet, but I’ve seen this approach reduce churn by 5% to 10% in other companies.

In the subscription economy, if you don’t help make your customers successful—by their definition—you won’t be in business for long.

Post a comment and tell us how you figure out how your customers define success.