Global forces are propelling brands forward with digital-first initiatives, and thanks to decades of prep-work, it seems as if almost anything is possible. But although digital is now commonplace, we still have a lot to learn about maximizing insights from data and understanding the processes surrounding the customer journey.

As vice president of digital engagement at CSG, Mark Smith draws from over 20 years of global experience helping businesses deliver better consumer engagement through solutions that unify the logic layer of today’s customer-facing technology. Previously, Smith founded Quadstone and then Kitewheel. He is considered an industry pioneer in customer behavior analytics and customer journey orchestration.

CSG was a sponsor of Simpler Media Group’s Digital Experience Summit Winter Event, which took place online Feb. 16 and Feb. 17. Smith lead a session titled, “Quit Transforming: Cross the digital transformation divide and level up to a digital-first customer experience program.” We spoke with Smith about the differentiators that will drive brand success in these turbulent times.

Moving to the Multi-Experience Customer Perspective

Simpler Media Group: Tell me a little about your background. Did you always know your career would go in this direction? 

Mark Smith: In a way, yes. I’ve worked in the analytics of customer behavior for almost 30 years — almost since before they had customer data! I received my PhD in Statistics from the University at Edinburgh, and worked at the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Center, helping businesses explore what was possible when they collected customer data and used supercomputers to analyze that data. 

What’s funny is that the advanced research we worked on back then is exactly what has now become so commonplace with cloud computing. In 1990 specialized machines that filled the basement at Edinburgh University had thousands of separate computer chips working together to solve a problem. They required very specialized programming approaches. The modern clouds from Amazon, Microsoft and Google use millions of computing units spread all over the world, and deploy many of the distributed computing techniques developed 30 years ago, which are now available for every company to use. 

My focus in the last 10 years has been to help businesses build upon the data they now store to understand the processes surrounding the customer journey and the insights derived from their data. 

SMG: Looking back, is there a pivotal moment when a big idea clicked, or when you learned something you’ve carried with you ever since?

Smith: In 2005 my analytics company was bought by a business in process management. They did some early work in aligning web channel interactions to call center and branch interactions. This was the first time businesses were starting to think about things from the customer perspective, with multiple channels available to get service — web, phone and in-person — and companies were starting to try to align what they delivered to be the same on all channels. They wanted to build the process correctly once, and get it delivered the same on all channels. This approach has recently been identified by Gartner research as ‘multi-experience.’

‘We Are Going to Go Even Further Digital’

SMG: A lot of articles have been published over the last year describing how the global pandemic propelled us forward with the adoption of remote technology. Can you tell us about the other side of that story — how the pandemic has disrupted the digital restructuring that was underway?

Smith: Businesses that had restructuring underway, or done, were the lucky ones and ended up winners. Those who hadn’t started got left behind as digital became a dictate, and firms underway were forced to accelerate. One of our insurance clients changed what was a four-year plan into a one-year plan, re-prioritizing all their new web channel investments.

SMG: Is it too soon to get back on the track the industry was on before the pandemic? Or is that the wrong question? Is there a new track now, and if so, what is it?

Learning Opportunities

Smith: I think it’s rooted in the wrong question. Not only will we not be ‘going back’ because we’ve all discovered the real benefits of digital (especially as businesses now see the win-win possible from saving money AND having happier customers), I actually believe that we are going to go even further digital. Due to the next big crisis that is already upon us — The Great Resignation — companies don’t have the staff they need to deliver the services they want, so it’s even more imperative to move more activities to digital.

SMG: What have been some of the biggest successes with omnichannel digital management over the past year? On the other hand, where are companies still missing the mark?

Smith: Many retailers have learned a huge amount and made great progress in connecting marketing, sales, delivery, and support channels to give customers a seamless, informed, helpful experience. It can be done! Some great examples are what Kroger has done to reduce unnecessary communications, and what Floyd has done with its customer engagement, like the leading pharmacy chains. 

Some industries are being left behind. Healthcare delivery is stretched; more than any industry, they are feeling the impact of the pandemic with having to keep patients more remote. I got a great quote from the country's leading hospital group last week: ‘They can track the delivery of their Thai takeout on a Friday night, but they can’t track where their home nurses are.’

I’d also like to note that some brands are getting digital wrong by going too far. There are some interesting case studies of how remote ordering is ruining the customer experience.

SMG: In your view, in what ways should companies change from reactionary to proactive in shaping the customer experience?

Smith: It’s all about using the data (that they all now have!) to be more intelligent and know what the customer wants — then plan out how and when to best deliver it. Customers are on hundreds of journeys with dozens of brands, making thousands of interactions every day, mostly through their smartphones. Brands have to manage those journeys as best they can, based on predictions of customer interest, preferences and intent.

You can watch the Winter Session of the Digital Experience Summit for free here.