The Promises, the Challenges of 'Real Time'Our world has sped up. Everything is personalized and served up in real time, but there isn’t a single business function that can single-handedly deliver on the real time promise. For marketing to happen in real time takes robust technology and data analytics, and for the marketing message to be believable, the user needs to verify the claim with peers -- in (you guessed it) real time.

Let’s unpack how a customer experience actually looks and feels in real time.

The Promise

Personalized Service

The more customer communications move online, the more data is created -- it currently adds up to 2.5 quintillion bytes of data daily. This is a huge opportunity because we no longer have to guess what customers want – we can understand who they are, see what they do and predict what they will need. Multiple customer journey tools aim to connect browsing and purchasing behaviors -- ultimately linking between intent and behavior.

Right Experience at the Right Time

Serving up the right information to the right person at the right time is the “holy grail” of real time marketing and a result of knowing your current and future customers and prospects. But it’s more than just serving up information: It’s about providing “social proof” through other users’ stories, connecting them to each other, and stepping up to provide support and additional resources when needed -- and staying out of the way otherwise.

Peer Advocacy

No one believes companies’ lofty claims anymore. Knowing that people just like you are using the product to solve problems just like yours acts as the biggest motivator. More and more these social stories become embedded into experiences companies create for their customers. It’s why platforms like Chute help brands embed their customers’ user-generated content into the shopping experience and at the point of decision. Online communities provide this kind of social proof at the right moments by bypassing the company as a middleman and connecting individuals directly to each other.

Expanding the Pie

By bypassing the company and connecting directly, users and customers not only share knowledge and get more out of your products -- they also share and build upon your products. In this kind of collaborative economy -- which according to research by Jeremiah Owyang's Crowd Companies and Vision Critical, weighs in at an impressive 80 million sharers in the US alone -- customers are no longer idle consumers. They can create product extensions, share them, bring them to market in interesting ways and build new business models. It’s up to you to participate with them or become irrelevant.

Loyalty

When customers connect with you and with each other, they become more loyal. Even the most logical humans are motivated by emotion, and research shows we gravitate to where we have stronger relationships. Customers are willing to stick it out with brands they feel loyal too, even if their competitors may have better features. With the Internet of Things, a company can get a distress signal immediately from a customer and anticipate her needs, ultimately winning her loyalty.

The Challenges

It’s not all roses. Real time communication carries with it some serious challenges that have to be understood in order to be resolved. I asked people on Facebook what challenges they've experienced with things happening in real time. Here are some observations based on their answers and my own experiences:

Yesterday’s Tools

Real time means many things to many people, but everyone can agree that it means speed and relevance. Unfortunately, most of the time the tools we use and the way we organize ourselves get in the way of actually delivering the value we promise. Think about large, siloed companies delivering an answer to a customer when it falls outside of the normal protocol .... Exactly!

Too Many Channels

There are a lot of channels to use, blogs to read and “influencers” to impress -- and they're growing by the day. You never know if your customers need you on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, email or chat -- and you may be missing out on valuable visual opportunities on Pinterest or Instagram. The expectation for responsiveness has become 24/7 -- and has even started to affect how quickly we expect an answer in a channel like email. Spreading yourself over so many channels stresses the system and eventually reduces quality.

Too Much Data and Too Much Content

Although access to all this data provides an opportunity, picking through it to identify signals among the noise is a huge challenge. And it’s not just you -- your users have the same problem. They are fatigued as a result of content overload and constant engagement.

Distortion

Real time means speed, and speed often comes at the expense of quality as protocols fall by the wayside and temptation may push you to cut corners. Real time communication can also distort perception and obscure context, emotionally overemphasizing some things and underplaying some others. As one of my Facebook friends said, “it raises emotional stakes, with a desire to be right.”

Cost

This one’s a biggie. Real time communication (especially in the support context) means that you’re moving from batch handling to piecemeal, which is inherently more expensive. Another friend from Facebook pointed out this handy study from BiT, which estimates the cost of synchronous support communications as significantly higher than asynchronous methods. Email, for example, is $3 per interaction, phone is $5.50, while web self-service asynchronous service is $0.24. While the research is dated, the relative amounts are pretty accurate even today. Real time response via social channels is somewhere between email and web-based, and costs escalate quickly based on complexity and how many people touch a case.

What to Do

Create Responsive Systems

Unless you plan to staff your company with bots reciting canned messages, you need to think through scaling, while still maintaining the beauty of human empathy. Treating each customer like an individual sounds nice, but is much harder to achieve at scale. The key here is to create responsive systems that ebb and flow as needed. From a support perspective, help your front-line employees handle exceptions by removing friction between them and the resources they need, and by encouraging and rewarding creativity and problem solving from across all levels of the enterprise.

On the marketing front, this means really getting to know your customer’s entire adventure -- where they come from, how they interact with your site and customer community and what’s needed next.

Disintermediate

A key component of building a responsive system is knowing when and how to disintermediate -- to limit the role and impact of middlemen who broker relationships, and allow participants to work together directly. In a predictable system, there’s a clear chain of custody, and things move in a linear fashion from person to person. In a fluid system, information and “tasks” flow in unpredictable ways, and it’s the job of the system to connect participants, not prescribe how information will flow. By doing so, you’re creating an environment where things can happen at the speed that they need to.

Become Porous

I’m fascinated with the idea of porousness, and although I don't know who originated the concept, this clip from Deb Schultz is the earliest one I’ve encountered. It’s the notion that the best ideas aren’t always going to come from inside of your organization, and your collaboration with customers isn’t a structured process of crowdsourcing for a particular project or collecting ideas in a form. Porousness is the ability and desire to work across organizations in unexpected, emergent ways -- and creating the conditions through which a shared outcome can happen.

Invest in Data

You’d be hard pressed to find a successful marketing strategy that’s not maniacal about understanding which tactics and business processes result in favorable business outcomes. The same goes for finding truly innovative technology that doesn’t understand what’s driving user behaviors and can’t iterate based on data. Data is at the center of all decisions -- but a word of caution -- don’t use data alone. Include human cognition to add valuable context.

For all the excitement that surrounds real time communication, it has its flaws and challenges. Don't jump in feet first without understanding the impact it will have on your operations. Real time is not a panacea that gets you to awesome outcomes like customer advocacy. If you don’t address the fundamentals of how your business is organized, it will only bring all the flaws to the forefront -- in real time.

Title image by STH (Shutterstock)