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As companies evaluate their growth strategies for the New Year, the conversation ultimately comes down to which set of dials to turn. Does the company invest in more sales people, product features or marketing programs?

Companies aspiring to be customer-aligned add a few more dials to the conversation -- what should the chief customer officer be measured on, beef up the customer success team, invest in employee engagement / culture initiatives, innovate their customer engagement strategy, and/or shift from a product-feature-pushing sales model to a services-selling-path?

What all of these dials have in common is that they focus on the customer. Except each dial reflects an organizational silo that is focused on a slice of the customer experience -- none focus on the whole customer. Revenue growth depends on the organization’s ability to understand how to detect, decipher and act on the customers’ perspective of their intent.

Walk the Customer Engagement Talk

I define customer intent as:

the actions, decision or result that a buyer is currently working or looking to realize for the specific customer journey step they are in.”

Intent can be aspirational or a concrete set of pre- as well as post-purchase actions that are underway across all interaction channels.

Understanding customer intent doesn’t come from some new technology or software applications but from leveraging existing data sources in new ways. According to Stew Bloom, CEO of Aspect, “It means taking away the seams between systems and silos to enable the holistic view of the customer.” Increasingly that ability will determine a company’s survival as “customers become agnostic about the brands they do business with yet almost religious about the experiences they have and want.”

Bloom admits that for 80 percent of companies, this is a tall order. Most companies talk about customer engagement but few walk the talk, opting instead to focus on tactical, silo-oriented, point solutions. Only 20 percent of companies can act on customer intent because they’ve laid the groundwork by “codifying their customer experience vision and roadmap,” according to Bloom. To codify a brand’s vision of customer engagement you need actionable, detailed journey maps and a culture shift.

Matthew Storm, director of innovation and solutions for NICE Systems, says “a company’s culture is very evident to the customer.” Your customers know much better than you just how well your organization listens, understands and can respond to them. The realization that customers scrutinize your behavior more closely, and constantly, than your board or stockholders will change the conversation overnight from the conceptual to reality. When that hits home it’s often with a shock that spurs the organization into action or paralyzes it into denial.

No More Guessing Games 

The wakeup call started five years ago when companies started connecting the dots between customer engagement expectations, company culture and employee empowerment. Starting in call centers “employees put more faith in what customers had to say than what their managers said,” shares Storm.
Front line employees, trusting and acting on customer feedback, changed how they engaged with buyers and users.

Their managers, long tired of flogging employees with an array of detailed metrics started to realize that the problem was not with “lazy employees,” as one CEO lamented to me recently, but with poorly designed processes across multiple interaction channels. As engagement strategies and touch points are aligned with customer expectations a surprising thing happens -- attrition decreases and employee-contributed innovation increases.

That’s because “employees are linking customer sought outcomes with their behavior which motivates change,” shares Storm. “Companies then start to see the seeds of churn lie in customer behavior across the channels. By connecting the dots of what customers are doing and saying across and in-between channels, companies are able to act on intent in meaningful ways.” CEOs that take to heart customer feedback and market transparency make that all important first step to becoming customer-aligned: it only took listening with an open mind.

That "ah-ha" moment prepares the organization to understand and ultimately to influence customer actions. Influencing intent is a three legged stool: understand the customer, decipher intent and enable their decision journey.

Without the ability to accurately decipher intent, delivering the right message at the right time on the right device to the right person becomes a guessing game. The more accurately and consistently a brand spots and responds to intent, the greater the trust the customer places in that brand.

How can brands decipher intent? Best practice recommends comparing the behavior patterns of prospects against a repository of customer profiles. Predictive analytics can determine the best degree of fit between buyer/target account and a customer profile that most closely matches the buyer’s behavior based on past success patterns. That profile drives interaction strategies including campaigns, customized call-to-actions and supports best “next” action recommendations for marketing, sales and customer service teams to enable the customer to achieve their desired outcome.

Acting on intent turns customer engagement into a competitive advantage. No longer a guessing-game or resorting to one-size-fits-all strategies, brands can consistently decipher intent and translate that into meaningful engagement. The brands that “walk” with the customer on the decision journey become trusted sources along the way.

Title image by Chrissy Wainwright (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC 2.0 license