BOSTON -- As I close out on my first Gilbane Conference, the overall impression I am left with is that many business managers are approaching a level of near-panic about speed and complexity at which new digital tools are surfacing to change the market.
Don't panic. Before having a heart attack about your omnichannel marketing strategy, focus on your product and business model first, because a great business model will make the customer experience problems easier to solve.
What Are You Afraid Of?
At Gilbane, it was easy to get overwhelmed by technical jargon and the latest shiny piece of software. We're been bombarded by omnichannel, adaptive content models, marketing automation and responsive design.
We heard about big, scary trends, such as technology departments being embedded in the marketing department, from people like Meghan Walsh, senior director of eCommerce with Marriott.
There were also expansive visions of how the business landscape is changing on a massive scale. Forrester analyst Stephen Powers says that we have exited the "Information Age" and entered a new era of "Customer Experience," where the customer tells us what to do.
Really? News flash: Customers are not new. They've always been a bit scary, and they've always told us what to do. The change is that they now have many more ways to communicate than ever -- very quickly, and more powerfully: email, social media and iPhone videos. The customer's now in your face 24/7, piping into the world's most powerful feedback loop.
The key is to listen. And give back.
Is listening to the customer that scary? For some companies, it is. Take the case of Taco Bell, which built a $1 billion business after taking a customer's product idea (without acknowledging him), and then paid the poor guy $1,000 as he died of cancer, according to this USA Today story.
The acceleration of the feedback loop is why we all face more anxiety. The customer is more accessible and transparent than ever. But there's no magic bullet. The best you can do is use the customer feedback to improve your product and business. Isn't that the point?
The worst screw-ups happen when people implement technology for technology's sake, without defining rational and attainable goals, first.
The message from Tony Byrne, of the Real Story Group, was to assess the risk of big technology implementations first. Take a look at Healthcare.gov, pointed out Byrne. It was fraught with risk from the the beginning.
"It was a Big Bang business plan," said Byrne. "Don't have a Big Bang business plan."
Right, don't build Healthcare.gov. It's the classic case of top-down management.
You need a plan to adapt to the customer's wants and needs, whether you sell widgets or healthcare plans.
Maybe it gets more simple if the business model is simple. I am repeatedly drawn back to the Netflix.com Website, which my wife regularly complains to me is "really not a very good website."
I thought about this as I experienced the rapidly degrading experience of air travel to get to a content-experience conference.
Does the Netflix.com website really suck? Go there now and check it out. True, it's not a cutting-edge Customer Experience. The design and interface have the allure of a 1998 online bookseller. I'm sure there are plenty of design hipsters in New York City chuckling about the Neflix website as they sip their Chai Lattes.
But wait ... it works, right? You click on movies, and they are delivered. You can read reviews. The joke's on the hipsters -- in the last twelve months the company has booked $4 billion in revenue and $200 million in cash flow.
The lesson is this: Get your business model right first, and then craft a digital experience to match the business model. The cleaner the business model, the easier the technology implementation. The Netflix Website might be scoffed at, but it gets the job done.
Herein may be the key to our anxiety, and why we fly thousands of miles to listen to consultants tell us that the world is changing faster and fraught with risk: We're unsure of ourselves because we haven't finished the hard work of figuring out our long-term business goals first.