In 1996, inexpensive personal computers coupled with easy access to the Internet provided customers with increased access to information about products and services as well as the brands that deliver them.

Fast forward to 2004. Web 2.0 ushered in a new world of connectivity with blogs, wikis, social networking and a host of web applications that provide consumers with the ability to review, investigate, share, collaborate and debate the merits of products, services and the brands that deliver them. 

The balance of power between businesses and customers would never be the same.

Customers Take Charge

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It soon became old news that the balance of power between brand and customer had shifted. In 2006, Time Magazine named all of us, individually, person of the Year – emphasizing the shift to “The Empowered Customer.” And for marketers, a new era of data-driven, real time marketing began unfolding at an increasingly rapid pace.

The shift to the empowered customer:

  • Puts Senior Marketers in a whirlwind of confusing change
  • Does not come with an instruction manual
  • Creates unprecedented opportunities for competitors
  • Creates an equal amount of opportunity/upside and challenge/downside for marketing to take a leadership position within the enterprise

Customers now expect more than ever before from brands. Their Journey is personal, multichannel, social and complex. No two customer journeys are the same. For this reason, bi-directional signals are necessary to serve the customer with the processes and content that they want in their own time, on the device or in the manner that they choose, in the context of their situation. To meet these real time needs, corporate strategy needs to shift to create seamlessly integrated customer experiences across the lifecycle of their journey.

For brands, there is good news in this hyper-connected world: they have access to a mountain of publicly available customer data and insights in the form of opinions, ideas, challenges and preferences from which to craft real time customer engagement strategies. Never before have brands had so much customer and competitor information -- dare I say “big data” -- at their fingertips from which to craft real time engagement strategies. Brands that utilize this proliferation of data to make better, faster, more precise decisions will win in 2014 and beyond.

Marketers Say Real Time, Customers Say Deliver

Brands, marketers and tech companies use the term “real time.” Customers do not. Customers are either served well at the time of their choosing on the device of their choosing -- or not. The definition of real time for a customer is just simply meeting their expectation in the moment. With customers bouncing from task to task and device to device, every company needs have a strategy to enable seamless transitions and consistent experiences across all customer touch points.

To meet the customer’s measure of real time, organizations need to model their entire journey and deeply understand the collective set of experiences that they will have with their organization. With this understanding, they can go about breaking down the organizational silos and processes that get in the way of providing a seamless, positive experience. If the brand does its job well, the customer will do their part and provide the desired business outcome (purchase, advocacy, etc.).

What’s in it for the companies that do this well? According to a recent study by Watermark Consulting, the answer is revenue and growth. It is clear that in order to succeed in today’s digital environment, companies need to deliver smarter, more customer-centric interactions that feel as though they are tailored for a specific set of circumstances.

While the nature of the relationship between the brand and customer has changed, organizational goals remain the same: drive customer acquisition, revenue and growth as well as brand affinity to create awareness, preference and advocacy. For marketers, it’s not just about customer acquisition these days; it’s about the entirety of the customer’s experience pre-sale, at purchase and post-sale. Marketers must take the lead in crafting strategies that span all of the pre- and post-sales experiences to continued engagement and deliver on both top and bottom-line results.

What it Takes to Deliver

This requires a shift in focus and organizational structure to create exceptional and holistic customer experiences. It takes an organization that breaks down departmental silos to focus on an entire set of experiences that are being created for the customer pre-sale, during sale, and post-sale.

Brands and technology providers both have been in a race to match real time customer analysis with customer behaviors in an attempt to understand, and possibly even predict, the customer’s behavior. Finding emerging opportunities, issues and trends as they happen is now possible. Knowing where a topic or customer demographic is headed is even better. In analyzing these customer and market interactions, brands hope to influence both the individual customer as well as the communities that gather at digital watering holes.

Why is serving the customer in this manner such a challenge?

  • Continuous profileration of new channels and communities
  • Increasing use of multiple channels to complete a single task
  • Consumer expectation for consistency and personalized experiences across channels
  • Interaction data volumes are growing exponentially

These nuances create an opportunity to find the many sweet spots of engagement with diverse customer segments. Focusing on the elements below can provide a solid foundation to approach this complex situation:

  • Define customer engagement lifecycles to optimize interaction across all touch points
  • Understand behavioral characteristics of segments including drivers of engagement, key moments of opportunity in their journey and optimal delivery channels
  • Build a consolidated 360 degree view of all individuals and their interactions in real time
  • Orchestrate dynamic personalization of content for multichannel and cross-channel communications, both inbound and outbound, across the customer journey (pre-, during and post-sale)
  • Integrate email, mobile, social media, web and traditional channels for cross-channel collaboration
  • Understand the post-sales experiences and behaviors that impact new customer acquisition
  • Define quantitative and qualitative Key Performance Indicators that analyze and measure performance of the experiences in the journey.

Editor's Note: Read more from this month's focus on real time marketing