Are You Playing Whack A Mole With Customer Engagement?We've all heard that the customer is in charge: They're calling the shots and managing their own destiny. The role of vendors has been relegated to a supporting and enabling one. It’s all about the customer and the only thing that matters is their perspective.

CEOs and management teams agree on these points on an intellectual level, but emotionally, the new reality is a hard one to swallow. In the good old days Sales was the key to customer’s success. Having that level of influence is hard to let go of.

Yesteryear’s motto of “helping is selling” is even more applicable today. The “helping” just takes on different forms and the relationship between the buyer and seller is even more co-dependent today than it was back then. It just happens in different channels.

Vendors Keep Hitting the Same Targets

Today’s buyer has a simple request -- “understand me from my vantage point.” Vendors need to understand that buyer needs evolve rapidly over the relationship lifecycle. Buyers look at their vendor relationships holistically. Unfortunately, vendors stubbornly continue to look at their customer relationships from the vantage of a point in time.

Buyers continually evaluate vendors based on their needs, how well past interactions met expectations, how aligned vendor’s values and processes are to the buyer’s, and how they feel about vendor solutions. The vendor evaluates the customer based on how much business they closed this quarter or year. One view is holistic while the other is short-term revenue focused.

It should be of no surprise then that the current customer experience "best" practice of optimizing a few, key customer interactions does not move the needle for the long term. By "finding and fixing" a handful of interactions that are typically isolated to digital experiences, customer acquisition and call center support, vendors are engaging in an adult-version of the "whac-a-mole" game. Every "fixed" interaction results in another, different broken one rearing its head in a never-ending cycle. No wonder so many organizations have a jaded view of today’s customer engagement movement. It hasn’t yielded on the promise of loyalty and revenue growth.

Look for the Total Relationship

The culprit is not the concept, nor buyer fickleness, but rather the vendor’s perspective. The "find and fix" approach to customer engagement reinforces the organizational silos that vendors are claiming to tear down. While the approach fits more easily into how organizations operate, it robs the vendor of a holistic view of the customer’s desired -- albeit evolving -- perspective of the relationship.  And it does little to deepen trust and alignment between the customer and vendor: two cornerstones of customer-led organizations.

Vendors striving to become customer-led spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to figure out what the engagement expectations of customers are. No one wants to resort to guessing, the stakes are too high.

In response vendors have invested in analytics, voice of the customer and voice of the employee programs, NPS, customer surveys, advocacy marketing, behavioral tracking and numerous industry analyst studies to piece together the customers’ decision journey and engagement expectations. The results identify broken interactions, not a comprehensive view of the buyers’ perspective. You're left with a patchwork of partial truths, myths and wishful thinking.

Without a deep understanding of the buyer’s perspective, vendors revert back to whacking the mole. At least they are doing something to improve customer alignment.

Based on my experience in working with Fortune 500 companies to develop detailed, actionable understandings of their vendor expectations I can tell you: that's not good enough. While vendors focus on specific interactions, customers put more weight on the overall relationship. General Electric summed it up well, “relationship trumps price.”

While vendors worry about re-targeting or what the ROI is from customer experience and which technology platform to use, customers are focused on gauging the trustworthiness and values of vendors.

Helping is the New Selling

Many vendors are adopting the Chief Customer Officer (CCO) role to figure all that out. It’s a move in the right direction. However, without the CEO and the CCO’s peers understanding the transformation the company needs to undergo, this new position will resort to the least common denominator of change that the organization will tolerate, namely, focusing on finding and fixing broken interactions.

While playing whac-a-mole may feel productive, it is institutionalizing a deep resistance to the type of change that companies need to embrace in order to see the fruits of customer-centricity. Let’s call the resistance, objections and excuses what they really are -- fear of the unknown and loss of control.

Becoming truly customer-led at the strategy, culture, process and technology level is not as scary, risky or involve as long time-to-value as our imaginations would have us believe. In fact, there are four easy steps to put your company on the road to become customer-led. The trick is to embrace how the customer sees their world and involve everyone in the process because it is the only perspective that matters.

  1. Learn by mapping the buyers’ journey with qualitative research and conduct a gap analysis to define where and why experience negatively impacts growth. (Takes less than three months)
  2. Optimize processes and data around customer attraction, onboarding, servicing and cross-functional relationship building. (Takes less than three months)
  3. Align people, strategy, process and technology outward to customers and train employees on how to consistently deliver to customer expectations. (Takes one to two quarters)
  4. Innovate a differentiated customer experience and operationalize it through new business models and strategy changes. (Takes two or more quarters)

The question is a simple one: Do you want to lead your own change or have it forced upon you? Either way you will have to change because helping is the new selling. While focusing on isolated experiences or optimizing journey segments can be measured and reported, you’re just making the road to your goal much longer. A better approach is to start with a deep, holistic understanding of the customers’ perspective, crafting a change management strategy and plan from it. You’ll find this will lead to faster measurable results that are sustainable.

Title image by Andrew F. Kazmierski / Shutterstock.com