Customer Data & Decisions – “Reflections of Me”

In this post, I explore what firms really do know about me as a customer.


What do they know, and how did they get that?

Wow! Where do I start?   Many companies today are doing everything in their power to amass as much data on me as possible so presumably they “know me” and make more relevant marketing offers…or as they say, “to provide me with an exceptional experience through an ongoing conversation.”

As empowered consumers, we are the judge of whether they are doing this well. Are they really capturing the right information and in a way that is respectful, well-timed, and used appropriately? This subject quickly stretches into ethical and political implications, but to avoid that, I will just lay out some facts about what companies are doing:

  • First and foremost, they save everything I do with them. All interactions, all transactions, all orders, all clicks on their website – basically any activity on their physical and digital properties they capture and keep – in some cases for 4 years or more.
  • They can often freely share this information with subsidiaries and affiliates (which means a lot of other companies) unless I explicitly ask them not to.
  • They append 3rd party data – lots of it. The sharing of data about me is ubiquitous. Appending means other companies are capturing data and sell it and it’s often indicative of my affinity to like, want or to buy something. This can pretty easily be matched to me with a presumption, for example, I also like to golf because I subscribe to a golf magazine.
  • They are looking at my patterns of activity.
  • They progressively profile through very short but repeated data collecting. For instance, I sign up on a website and provide basic information, then I agree to a news letter, and they capture some preferences, I download their mobile app, and so forth. Eventually, they may know whether I own or rent, have children, or are planning a kitchen remodeling.
  • And they try to predict their next best move. In other words, they are trying to figure out what I really need and want. Called “Next Best Action” technology, and usually found in larger companies, there are very large teams tasked with calculating lifetime value, building rules, testing propensity models – and ultimately a hub that makes promotional, product and service recommendations.

Really very little of this is new my friends, it’s just massively accelerating.   In 1992, one of my favorite non-fiction authors, Erik Larson, wrote a book called “The Naked Consumer: How Our Private Lives Become Public Commodities.”[i] Back then, his impetus for writing the book was based on a pretty simple event driven mailing he received for his child’s first birthday. Intrigued, he chronicled a world he saw as already borderline out of control with consumer data sharing. Imagine his sentiments now with the growth of the internet, digital channels, social, mobile, and big data.   I think he might change the title to “The MRI of the Consumer.”  This month, Scott Brinker posted a blog entry estimating that nearly $22 billion USD of venture capital funding has been poured into the marketing technology companies he pastes onto his marketing technology landscape and admits it’s probably underestimated.

As a long time marketer, I’m not that paranoid or really that appalled at what is going on. I still believe we live in a world that has checks, balances, methods and free choices.   Often, as consumers, we decide how much information to give up in return for something.  In most cases it’s a conscious choice. And there are ways to combat and prevent abuse. My biggest concern is security, as information is repeatedly hacked and then used for purposes it was never intended for. Better security and education are needed, but in general I don’t think it’s as surprising today to the average person as it was for Larson 20 years ago.

But rest assured, this picture of you is getting clearer – and there is a substantial amount of corporate energy being poured into filling in the blanks. The popular term is “The customer journey”, and now also being called “The customer movie”, with the intent to define every frame.

Yet motives and reality are two very different things.   I might want to be rich, but simply wanting doesn’t make it so.   And really, who I am versus what specific habits or preferences I have in relation to a certain product or service is generally where the line is drawn. For instance, a home improvement business would love to know what kinds of building skills I have, what tools I have, and what projects I’m considering, yet I don’t think they really care about what music I like.

What do they intend to do with my information?

I believe at the heart, companies just want to sell more of what they have and do it at the lowest possible cost to them.   It’s that simple.   But they know the world is competitive, there are choices, switching barriers have eroded, and if what they are offering (or failing to) isn’t a match, or at the right price – I will go somewhere else.

So they collect data, study events and patterns of activity, test timing, try to get preferences right, personalize content, and hope I’m impressed when they take actions.event_detection

Are they becoming specialists majoring in knowing one aspect of me, and knowing it well?   Perhaps, but make no mistake their not your best interests are in mind, and if information is useful to another party, and a business transaction makes sense, it will happen. Ironically, businesses are better at sharing customer information then the healthcare industry is at sharing patient information, although finally we are seeing some improvement there.

How did they do that?

It’s really not rocket science, yet amusingly marketers are applying technology that is also used to help launch and guide rockets.


When a rocket launches, there are sensors monitoring all its complex systems. As a consumer, your systems – what you say, what you do, where you go – are being monitored.   Hotels are now placing beacons at key locations such as the front door, to detect when you arrive.   Stores are using similar technology to gauge your potential interest in a product sitting on the shelf you are next to.

There is already software and technology, and the cost is dropping, to gather this data and allow the marketers to access it and build rules on it (e.g., if customer arrives, alert front-desk personnel and pop-up appropriate offers).

Rocket scientists make heavy use of statistics and probability theory to understand the amount of redundancy necessary in systems, the likelihood of something failing, or predictions of weather to gauge best launch and landing windows. Marketers use all these techniques to tune their systems for response time versus cost, whether a new promotion will succeed, or timing a communication.

Also, the cost of storing, aggregating, distilling, modeling, and using this information is dropping rapidly.   The internal discussion has shifted from how much data should be saved, to how more data can be synthesized and insights gleaned from it.

A confluence of freely shared institutionalized best practices, application speed and simplicity, cloud computing, automation, and scientific testing procedures has led to more companies with access to better marketing technology – and a better, albeit still incomplete picture of you the customer.

Comments and alternative views are always welcomed.

Note:  These views are my own, and not that of my employer

[i] Larson, Erik. The Naked Consumer: How Our Private Lives Become Public Commodities. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.

True Omnichannel Marketing – Part 4 – “Seamless Experience”

In Part 1, I explored how and why to test for the right mix of channels.   In Part 2, I covered channel activity coordination and consistency.   In Part 3, I delved into using technology to achieve effective channel integration for optimal marketing decision making. In this post, I investigate the concept of providing the customer with a seamless omnichannel experience.

crosschannel seamless marketing

What is a seamless omnichannel experience?

When you shop, or do business with any firm, I’m sure you don’t think of them as several companies organized by channel. You probably think of them as one business. Yet so many firms still operate their channels by groups that are motivated to improve your experience in that channel, but not given incentive to guarantee you have an exceptional experience crossing channels.

If you are like me, you take a deep breath and hold in a sigh nearly every time you are passed across channels; whether it’s by a human saying they will transfer you, or whether it’s a system, such as an IVR.   Basically, you have come to expect that more often than not the process will result in aggravation and dissatisfaction because:

  • Very often, the transfer is never accomplished, causing you to begin again
  • The hand-off results in you going to the back of the line in that next channel and/or having to spend a lot of time just pressing buttons to get to the next person
  • The hand over, once it occurs, is unintelligent. None of the information you provided previously is transferred, and you have to start your story and providing information all over again
  • There seems to be no accounting or appreciation for how much cumulative time you have spent across the channels. There is no built-in escalation; invariably you have to reach a boiling point where you demand other action
  • The first question you are asked at the start of the process is if you want to take a survey on your satisfaction once you have finished

    customer satisfaction

No doubt, a better omnichannel experience with less friction involves:

  • Marketing, Sales, and Customer Service employees that genuinely care about whether you are successfully moved into the next channel
  • Systems that transmit information already captured, so you don’t have to repeat it
  • Systems to track your total time engaged across channels in your current session, and then have rules that take that into account
  • People and systems that automatically document key events and transactions that transpired, so that there is a comprehensive corporate record
  • A variety of choices when being transferred, all that are relatively seamless
  • Survey & feedback options that reward you for taking your time, and are presented after the process is completed

For example, suppose you first enter a mobile website seeking information, encounter a chat option, then the person you are chatting with provides you with a link, you go to the link and while reading it find a phone number, you call the phone number, and finally the call center person refers you to a Facebook Fan Page. Sound unlikely? Not really.   I actually encountered this case with an airline.

Consider closely this customer journey, which involved 5 channels (mobile web, chat, self service web, call center, and social), and your reaction might be that I’m describing a service case, not marketing.   Actually, I contend that in most cases interactions with customers involve both. Moreover, when the consumer intent starts as a shopping process, consumers predominately use more than 2 channels during their journey.

Practically anytime a customer engages, you should think of it as a service and marketing interaction.   Marketing, by definition, is the process by which you promote, sell, and distribute your products and services – and information on them. Using this description, nearly any interaction has the potential to involve some form of promotion.   But in the end, as Ben Franklin once said, “Well done is better than well said.”

Let’s go back to the case. I might have rated this encounter smooth and near seamless if the people, systems and processes were more geared and tuned to meet my requirements – the least amount of time and effort, with the result being what I started off seeking.   Although in this case my expectations weren’t met, it made for a great use case for the framework involved, and for the goals to aspire to.

Why is this seamless experience important?   The network effect

network effect marketing

Since I invoked a historical figure to quote from above, why not do it again.   “Quality in a service or product is not what you put into it. It is what the client or customer gets out of it.” – Peter Drucker.

I argue the same is true of marketing. It doesn’t matter how good you think your marketing is, what matters is what your customers or prospects think, and what they get out of it.

A credit card company I did consulting with for ages marketed their credit cards to me for 8 years using traditional physical channels.   I never converted.   Certainly all the marketing had an impact on my awareness of their products and brand, yet the exceptional omnichannel experience that I later had when I signed up for an entirely different service is what I now equate to their marketing abilities.

Of late, customer’s purchase decisions are influenced by online positive or negative reviews.  In a recent survey, 88% of respondents said they are influenced by online reviews when making a buying decision[i] So whether it’s the functioning of a product, it accessories and training, its price, the promotions on it, or where and when its available – all these aspects get reviewed and become your positive or negative marketing.   If the customer experience is a smooth one as they research, discover, and learn across channels – then you stand to benefit.

What systems are required to achieve a seamless channel experience?

Above all, you need a system that records and makes accessible all channel activities to all that may have to answer questions from customers.   Ideally, this system is integrated, with a unified front-end, so that customer facing employees don’t have to switch systems, toggle screens, and struggle to find historical records.

In addition, the channel systems that gather customer data should be able to:

  • Send data across channels so it can be prepopulated and used in the next channel – namely data like account number, order number, specific product inquiry, and reason for call
  • Trigger another system to update it or take prescribed actions, such as calculating elapsed time or sending an SMS or email

Comments and alternative views are always welcomed

Note:  These views are my own, and not that of my employer

[i] Dimensional Research – Customer Service and Business Results; April 2013

True Omnichannel Marketing – Part 3

In Part 1, I explored how and why to test for the right mix of channels.   In Part 2, I covered channel activity coordination and consistency.   In this post, I delve into using technology to achieve effective channel integration for optimal marketing decision making.


What is effective channel integration?

Channel integration is really all about intelligent data sharing for just-in-time decision making in the appropriate channel.   Marketing across channels in a way that is advantageous to both you and your customers involves efficiently sharing descriptive attributes about them that can be leveraged to make the best recommendations and personalized experiences when they are in channel, or when you are proactively communicating with them.

To illustrate, think about what you expect a business to be able to do when you go to their website.   Should they know your location? Should they be attentive to how you arrived at the site? Should they be aware of your recent purchases or activity in another channel?   What if today you achieved a new tier of loyalty?   I think we would all say that not only should they know these things (assuming proper permissions are given), but they should take them into account in the actions they decide to take in this channel interaction.

Yet too often, firms are not effective with getting the right data to the systems charged with calculating the next best actions for the channel in question.   Why is this?   From what I’ve observed, it boils down to these reasons:

  • Channel ownership in terms of data and decision rule making is still done in silos.
  • Channel owners are not given incentives to make changes for the greater good, but instead have measurements in place that encourage channel myopia. Without executive leadership for change, status quo remains.
  • If the time to get the right data and make a decision based on it is deemed to take too long, the tradeoffs to make this work are quickly dismissed as too costly or risky.
  • The analytical science, methodology and process involved to get to the right set of customer attributes for a given channel are not well understood, and there isn’t enough priority placed on solving for this.
  • The candidate pool of potentially predictive data that should be tested is not readily available, and the process to make it accessible and distill it down appears to involve too much effort, time and cost.

Why is channel integration important?

Without effective channel coordination and integration, as a business you will make less relevant and timely marketing actions, and risk failing behind your competition resulting in less satisfied customers, lost customers, and declining market share.

Evidence suggests that customers expect companies to understand them, at least in terms of being aware of past interactions and information voluntarily surrendered[i].   Moreover, they are increasingly cross-channel shoppers, using more than one channel in their buying process. If consumers sense firms “don’t have a clue”, it’s not uncommon for them to feel it’s their social responsibility to broadcast digitally via reviews, social media, or blog posts.   This can have an adverse impact on a company’s brand image. Think of it as a negative promoter score – or “net demoter score” that firms should aspire to improve.

Conversely, consumers often react favorably to activities and promotions that are relevant to them, and in the short run will reward firms with higher response rates (it’s not uncommon to achieve 3x or higher), yet more importantly long-term loyalty improves because of increased levels of trust, convenience, and meeting requirements, leading to higher lifetime value and more referrals.

Consider the dilemma businesses face today and then ask if better channel integration as described helps crack this. More than ever, consumers are impatient on two sometimes opposing fronts – they expect the right answer and they expect it fast.

  • It’s been said that today speed trumps quality, but actually consumers expect both, and if they don’t get both from you, they will shop around – and consumer switching, especially for younger segments, is on the rise[ii]
  • What does it mean to be making decisions in real-time – e.g., providing speedy answers? I submit that what is most important is providing decisions in the right amount of time to meet true customer expectations and needs.   So if a customer is clearly seeking deeper content on a particular product, offering them alternative product recommendations in sub-seconds may be less useful to them (and to their likelihood to buy anything from you) versus providing them detailed content on that product minutes or even hours later.   This is what is meant by JIT (Just in Time) decision making.

What systems are required to achieve effective channel integration?

Channel integration as described entails a number of systematic capabilities such as:

  • Maintaining a universally accessible channel preference center or data store that houses:
    • Consumer stated preferences
    • Channel effectiveness indicators organized by events and actions. For instance, if a consumer states a preference for direct mail yet data suggests they respond better to new product offers in emails, preserve and share that
    • Channel effectiveness indicators organized by timing.   Again, if its known that certain consumers have higher click thru rates on emails sent on Wednesdays between 11:30a and 1pm eastern time, codify it
  • Fast access to customer behavior and demographic attributes that can be fed to a given channel decision engine
  • Fast access to model scores and the ability to request recalculations as necessary for an interaction in a given channel
  • Fast access to personalized content and promotions that can be suitably combined with a prescribed channel action
  • Ability for one channel system to trigger transactional actions on another channel, such as when a customer is on a website, and the next best action is to send a personalized SMS
  • Facility to orchestrate a series of prescribed actions across channels that are set into motion by a genesis event or action on a given channel. The resulting flow diagram enabled by such a system might look something like this (there are many such systems in the market today):



Comments and alternative views are always welcomed.

[i] My Buys – 6th Annual Personalization Consumer Survey; January 2014

[ii] National Consumer Agency – Market Research Findings: Consumer Switching Behaviour; September 2013


True Omnichannel Marketing – Part 2

In Part 1, I explored how and why to test for the right mix of channels.   In this entry, I explore coordination of channel activity

What should you coordinate?

Today more than ever, consumers have extremely high expectations regarding how they engage with businesses via the multitude of channels available.   The new engagement model both sets the bar high and includes higher risks and potential returns.   If vocal consumers sense a company “doesn’t get it”, for whatever reasons, they often spend extra time and energy letting others know about it (usually via social media and reviews), and conversely, if impressed they may spread the word.

Coordinating channel activity can simply mean doing a variety of things consistently across channels such as:

  • Offering and honoring the same prices and promotions across channels
  • Ensuring all of your staff across channels have access to all the consumer’s channel activity
  • Maintaining a consistent branding, style, and content delivery amongst channel actions
  • Always presenting various channel options at each touch point for ultimate convenience
  • Honoring consumer channel preferences

Why coordinate?

Answering this question strikes me as another case of common sense that makes great business sense, but isn’t necessarily that common.   How often have you been in a store and asked if they will honor the online price and received a strange and hesitant look?   Who hasn’t found situations where you have sent and email, or called a call center and transacted with a business, only to find there is apparently no record of this activity?

So the answer becomes rhetorical.   Who wouldn’t want consumers that are extremely satisfied because the business is ultra coordinated and consistent in everything they say and do, no matter the channel?   This experience invariably leads to positive word of mouth advertising, positive reviews, and positive publicity – resulting in more referrals, better loyalty, and more business.

How do your customers see your business?

Here is the key thought of this post and something that may help you soul search on whether the omnichannel experience you are delivering is indeed exceptional across a variety of consumer opinions:

Does each different customer who you deem as important to your future strategy experience your brand in a way that thrills them?

Invariably, this question entails a number of key areas for your marketing strategy. Namely ensuring you have a well defined audience & segment targeting and value assessment approach, and also taking steps to check, in a humbling, objective and outside in way, how you are coming across to your customers.

Consider these strategies to get objective feedback that can help you improve your cross channel consistency:

  • Read a sampling of reviews on different channels (e.g., website reviews, Facebook fan page).   Use a sampling strategy to ensure you are getting a good cross section of opinions. For example, if you have a 5 star approach, read a sample of reviews with ratings in each. Also, be sure to sample across time, so if you have reviews that span one year, sample some from each month or quarter.
  • Remember that there is inherently a bias in the sample coming from people who post reviews, so although it’s critical to consider these (since they are out there and thus perception is reality), also consider a strategy to survey others that may never post reviews. For example, consider a bounce back survey where the consumer responds with their feedback confidentially, and receives a small compensation for doing so (e.g., some loyalty points).
  • Research for views and publicity that may not be reaching your properties directly, but may have a significant positive or negative impact on how your brand is perceived. For instance, influencers in your market may be blogging, posting or tweeting about the experience they had with your brand, and considering that could be critical.
  • Angle for a way to also ferret out what (hopefully there is something) you are doing right. Why? Because otherwise you may inadvertently de-emphasize this thinking it wasn’t important, when it was yet no one bothered to tell you that.   Perhaps you are doing a fantastic job documenting your customer interactions in a timely and comprehensive fashion, still no one rewards you with stellar feedback on this.   Yet if you let this practice slip, you may well hear about it, after damage is done.

OK sounds smart – but this sounds hard also?

Maybe in large complex organizations getting much of this right isn’t easy, however often fairly simple practices and incentives work well.

An ordinary call center today has reps asking how they did, or offering a short survey when the call ends, but instead consider the following question, and what it implies:

“What is the single most important thing we (as a company) could do to improve?”

This question has many great aspects packed inside.   It gives the customer the latitude to consider their experiences and opinions not only for this interaction, but for any one in any channel at any time. It also isn’t limiting them to service or marketing interactions, as maybe they have an idea to improve your product.   Additionally, it forces prioritization, asking for advice on their most important concern.

Do I need applications, systems and technology for this?

The short answer is yes you do, and especially if you are a large enterprise.   However, yet again, these systems don’t always need to be extremely sophisticated.   Having simple call logs that are sharable may be all that is required, yet providing the right incentives to guarantee every representative keeps track of all interactions is the key.

Once more, if you are trying to track and analyze feedback, employing a system that can help sample and synthesize sentiment is certainly helpful, however doing this in a more manual fashion versus not doing it all is the wise choice.

Comments and alternative views are always welcomed.