Screenshot of Annette Franz speaking during her virtual presentation at the CMSWire DX Summit conference.
Annette Franz at the DX Summit 2022 winter edition.

For the past two years, we've seen fundamental changes in the way that we live, the way we work and the way we shop. At this point, there's no question the pandemic accelerated digital across all channels causing digital natives and non-natives alike to spend more time using app services and support via their phones, tablets and computers. 

Rich Hein, Editor-in-Chief of CMSWire, owned by Simpler Media Group, shared those thoughts in his opening keynote address at last week’s CMSWire Digital Experience Summit. The virtual conference kicked off a three-part, year-long series of conferences on digital customer experience. The spring edition takes place May 18–19, followed by a fall conference Oct. 19–20.

“Your customers distinguish their experiences through the lens of online versus offline less and less,” Hein said. “Staying competitive in this new business environment requires new strategy keeping your customers engaged. We now find ourselves in a digital-first world with customers expecting a seamless experience over multiple channels and across all their platforms and devices. Today's brands need to be agile and in touch with their customers to stay relevant and competitive."

Missing Out on Customer Conversations

Neil Hoyne, Chief Measurement Strategist at Google and author of "Converted: The Data-Driven Way to Win Customers' Hearts," discussed missed opportunities for brands to engage with customers and establish lifetime value relationships. He cited the example of a woman buying heels and visiting a store 263 times before making a purchase. That experience? Entirely online. 

“I spoke with that particular store owner to ask what was learned about that particular customer, the resources that she took up, the time it took to get her to buy and in fact they knew nothing of her,” Hoyne said. “And the reason was that that experience happened entirely online. He assured me that if this happened in a physical store, they would have intervened with different messaging, more personalization.

"But in the online world, she translated into a visit. An individual moment in time, and every visited site meant that they spent more time trying to connect with her, convinced that the next visit would be the one that she purchased.”

When she did purchase, the brand spent so much time and so many resources and money on marketing that the customer not only had a poor customer experience, but it was also unprofitable for the business, Hoyne added.

“But we can learn something from that particular story,” Hoyne said. “I don't necessarily understand the motivations to this day for that particular customer and her behavior. But the question was where we focus too much on the short term, just what happened in that moment.

"That is one of the struggles that we have with digital marketing. Digital marketing was successful because we could prove that our investments paid off. But goals became too short-term for most companies. Everything had to happen in that visit. We didn't have a sense of a conversation or a larger sense of a customer relationship.”

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Building Out Your Customer Personas

Annette Franz, CCXP, Founder and CEO of CX Journey Inc. and author of "Customer Understanding," said collecting customer insights and making them actionable comes back to listening and really understanding your customer and the customer experience. 

“We do have to start with who are customers,” Franz said. “And so taking the time to build out these personas. And don't just think about buyer personas. Don't just think about what your marketing team needs to fill that buyer funnel. You've got to think about personas and when you're developing personas about that end to end experience.”

Many companies and customer experience teams get stakeholders in the room and talk about who they think their customers are. But it's not nearly enough.

“But we actually have to go and do that primary research,” Franz said. “We actually have to go and talk to customers and really take the time. It is all about customer understanding. And so that happens when we talk to customers.”

Franz said that journey toward customer understanding begins with conducting some interviews with customers and with prospects. From there, you’ve created a base and from those interviews a minimal hypothesis of who those personas are. 

“And then we conduct that analysis to really develop those hypotheses, and then the next thing we do is we go out to put a quantitative spin on those hypotheses,” Franz added. “We survey customers, really validate the hypothesis of who our personas are. And then finally, we conduct various analyses … to really nail down and fine-tune the hypotheses and our personas.”

The final graphical representation of both ideal customers and current customers need to be socialized and operationalized throughout the organization. “So it’s really important to do this work to be the foundation of the rest of your customer understanding,” Franz said.

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Developing Multiple Customer Listening Programs

Gene Sutch, director of revenue strategy and analysis for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, discussed the many ways his teams listen and engage with customers to collect feedback and make experience adjustments. He said customers can speak to you directly and indirectly, and you have to listen to them each way.

“We have the surveys that we get from our customers, and we ask them a lot of questions about different experiences at the airports,” Sutch said. “We ask them to rate different experiences at airports and also things like how did you arrive at the airport? What are your selections and what types of things did you purchase and things like that.”

The customer-listening teams also formed a comment section and tailored survey questions each year based on what they hear from customers, how the market changes and how things shift in the environment. 

“We saw some dramatic changes in things we're asking as a result of COVID,” Sutch said. “The customer comments: that's really the customer speaking directly to us, things they want us to hear. Sometimes they’re complaints, sometimes they’re questions or sometimes they're just suggestions.”

The Airports Authority also has an immediate feedback channel called “Feedback Now,” where customers can answer a specific question, like how do you rate restroom cleanliness.

“And it's very immediate where they can push your green button for good, yellow for neutral and red for bad,” Sutch said. “And that's been extremely, extremely helpful in terms of really looking at when customers rate red versus green. We've made some really dramatic changes in how things were done at the airports as far as staffing and scheduling as a result of that. And it's really improved our ratings.”

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Bracing for Continued Digital Acceleration

Amy Shioji, Senior Vice President and Corporate Strategy and Experience Officer for Strategic Education, Inc. and the CMSWire CX Leader of the Year, talked about the impact of the pandemic on digital customer experiences. Not all have mastered the massive transformation. Some brands have struggled to weave in the physical and digital experiences to produce a solid customer experience.

She cited a McKinsey study that found the acceleration of digital transformation during the pandemic has amounted to multiple years’ worth of transformation wrapped into a short period of time. It’s been a lot for brands to observe and process.

“So this really is something that has been accelerated considerably,” Shioji said, “and that we need to really be thinking about holistically in terms of how we design the solutions and the services for customers.”

Shioji discussed some keys to adapting to this digital acceleration and ultimately supporting customer experience programs. They include:

  • Customer vision and strategy: Answers who you are serving, where you are focused and what it should feel like (aligned to brand promise)
  • Customer insights: Answers what you know about customer needs and experiences across key journey stages and customer groups
  • Experience design: Informed by strategy and insights, a holistic approach to an experience ecosystem that guides visual, process, system and service design
  • Governance and culture: Includes an executive sponsor and steering committee to drive prioritization and goal setting while addressing roadblocks and barriers

Brands need to consider they are not just designing for point solutions, Shioji added. “We can't be thinking about this as I need to create an app or a solution to this one thing because that's where you start to identify and miss all the other interconnected systems, processes, teams communication that needs to happen to be able to deliver this in a really scalable way.

“So we try to think of this in sort of a one-company focus or approach to CX that starts with an overall vision and strategy and … how you go about creating an ecosystem of the right types of digital experiences and interactions. It definitely needs to touch on operations, technology, culture and people with a lot of these key strategic enablers around governance around insights and change management. These key pieces are all necessary.”

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Recognizing the Difference Between Innovation and Iteration

Doug Stephens, retail and consumer futurist and author and Founder of Retail Prophet, told the audience that only about 2% of a brand’s employees are truly creative. It was a shocking number but one that sparked a dialogue in how brands can truly be innovative and infuse a culture of innovation throughout the enterprise.

“So it's important I think if we're having discussions about moving our businesses forward, and certainly about creating unique experiences, it's worthwhile stopping for a moment to understand how is it exactly that innovative organizations actually innovate,” Stephens said. “What are the things that innovative companies do that the rest of us can learn from and migrate those learnings into our own businesses?”

One of the initial things to understand? Determine the difference between innovation and iteration.

“The first key is we have to define what it is we mean, when we use the word innovation,” Stephens said. “Now, I know that might sound almost ludicrous because we all seem to have a working definition of what innovation means. It seems pretty straightforward.”

However, brands often confuse iteration with innovation. And they are not the same things, according to Stephens. 

“And oftentimes, I will talk to executives who are talking to me about the innovative things their companies are doing and when we get into the discussion, I realize what they're really talking about is improving upon things that they already do.

“Systems, processes, products. They're already in existence; they are simply iterating to make them better, and I take nothing away from that. Iteration is good. Continuous improvement is good. Experimentation is good. But it mustn't ever be confused with innovation. Innovation is a totally different practice. Innovation is ultimately and intrinsically about creating things that are new.”

Putting Customer Data Into Focus for Health of Business

Brad Schlachter, Head of Growth and Engagement for Simpler Media Group, talked about being laser-focused on the data that matters.

“There's so much data that we're all looking at it,” Schlachter said. “It's very easy, I think, to sometimes get distracted by what I've called vanity metrics. So really understanding the metrics that really matter most for the health of your business.”

From there, it’s all about being able to focus on the data that matters and supports your company’s business objectives.

“Top line traffic does matter and number of app downloads, things like that, certainly play a role,” Schlachter said. “But ultimately, it's really about engaging with the customer and retaining the customer. And that's really where I think the focus needs to be.”

Stephanie Thum, CCXP, Founder of Practical CX and a founding member of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA), said that the effort to focus on customer data that matters is a challenge, “but it's not an insurmountable challenge.”

“It can be a challenge just staying focused, keeping a rhythm and cadence going and really linking into your strategic goals,” she added. “It is a challenge, but it’s not insurmountable. That's why we call it work.”

Execution, she said, often comes down to a leadership problem. Research shows that these principles actually lead to measurable financial success, but there are so many other competing priorities that leaders have to face. It leads to problems keeping customers and this data in center focus. “That's a widespread, fundamental problem,” Thum said, “that a lot of organizations have.”

Relating AI to Economics

Ajay Agrawal, Founder of Creative Destruction Lab and co-author of "Prediction Machines: The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence," talked about artificial intelligence from the lens of an economic perspective. With AI being infused into customer experience more and more, it’s important to recognize how it’s seen on an economic vs. technological scale.

“If you were to ask a technologist, ‘Can you please describe to me what's going on in AI? I keep hearing about artificial intelligence,' … they would talk to you about advances in neural networks and the nodes and the networks and the link between the nodes and so on,” Agrawal said. “Whereas if you were to ask an economist, ‘Can you please tell me what's going on in artificial intelligence,’ they would not have this kind of image in the back of their mind.”

Economists view AI as the most important technology of our generation because they think of the rise of AI as a drop in the cost of prediction. 

“As AI continues to get better and better, you can think of that as prediction is getting cheaper and cheaper,” Agrawal said. “So what is prediction? You can think of prediction very simply as taking information you have to generate information you don't have.

"So that includes things that you and I would normally think of as prediction like the data I have, or historical sales data for the last 20 years. And the data I don't have is for sales in Q3 next year. That's the thing I'm trying to predict.”