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The fundamentals of good customer service may not have changed over the years, but the proliferation of channels and devices that people now have at their fingertips is creating an operational and strategic challenge for companies that goes right to the heart of the boardroom.

Travers Clarke-Walker, Payments and Innovation Director at Barclays, says: “The level of relationship that we build is largely through relationship staff or teams based in branches, but customers inevitably are going to want those relationships to be exhibited in the digital world.”

Bringing together and providing a consistent level of service across the old and the new channels, such as in-store, call centre, mobile and online, requires a highly complex, joined-up approach to customer interaction. Travers continues: “So they’re going to want to be able to ask us questions. Technically, we need to be able to provide that relationship through mobile banking, internet banking, Facebook, Twitter and so on, and for them to be getting [equal] value in those channels. Although [we focus on] an individual relationship manager who talks to a customer, we know that we now have to build that capability out into the other channels.”

It’s all about personalisation and direct engagement. Padraig Drennan, UK Managing Director at World Duty Free, says: “In our industry we know customers on different flights have different spending patterns. We can use that data to reorganise our labour scheduling, having Cantonese-speaking staff on duty when appropriate for a particular flight.

“Similarly, we know Norwegians adore Estee Lauder and Beautiful is their number one fragrance, so we ensure we are never out of stock. We are now experimenting with moving some of the product during the day around the store, so that when the different passenger flows come through we have the most appropriate product available for them.”

The bar has been raised when it comes to staying close to your customers. Bill Payne, Vice President of CRM and Industries, Global Process Services, at IBM, says: “We recently identified 24 different ways in which customers can get at a provider or someone that they wish to have a relationship with, as opposed to 30 years ago, when we had the shop front, the letter and perhaps the phone.... We should not be dictating how they get access to our companies. We should be cognisant and managing, listening and proacting across all channels.”

Market intelligence

Companies are slowly wising up to the need to gain a singular viewpoint of a customer across multiple channels. Geoff Wilmot, CEO of Centaur Media plc, says: “Businesses can now collect large amounts of detailed data – real time and legacy – about their customers, both current and prospective. They can analyse and segment that data automatically, run multiple scenario tests on it and integrate it into key processes to improve quality and efficiency. Those companies that do this effectively will obviously create a massive competitive advantage against those that don’t.”
Every transaction reveals information about a purchaser, although the inherent danger of this is information overload. Travers says: “We already have a huge reserve of knowledge about our customers from their current account data, for example. There’s potentially other data that we are sitting on which might be useful to the customer and, if used more efficiently, could improve the customer’s experience.”

A balance needs to be struck between analysing the data generated through Business Intelligence and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems for their own sake, within particular company P&L silos, and seeing the bigger picture so as to drive a business forward.

Geraint Anderson, CEO of TT electronics plc, argues that CRM must be driven from the top: “If I’m looking at our CRM system daily and asking questions of the sales team, it tends to get people’s attention... You’ve got to measure what you do every day, gauging your performance and the data that you need to run a successful customer programme. Therefore, much of the discipline and rigour for driving our CRM system falls to me – the leader.”

That's why it's a boardroom issue. Dipak Jain, a Criticaleye Thought Leader and Dean of INSEAD, says: "Putting customers first is a process that requires coordinated effort across the enterprise. In fact, designing a customer-centric organisation is really a journey of transformation; one that aligns everyone’s perspective in a way that highlights the customer. This may require a philosophical shift within the company, redesigning incentives and the company’s very structure.

"For instance, rather than product managers, the firm may well have to segment managers to create more intimate customer relationships. The journey also will involve using all the technological tools available (including social media and CRM data) in a coordinated strategic way to gain deeper insight into customers."

The missing link

Many CEOs and boards are still to come to grips with the pace of changing customer needs, how people use technology and what this means about how a businesses operates internally and is perceived externally. Bill says: “I would contest whether they really have a genuine strategy for engaging with the customer... These companies, or indeed their customers, are highly vulnerable to those competitors that have a customer experience strategy which is aligned with what we, as individuals, now expect in a service environment.”

For those businesses that ‘get it’, there’s an opportunity to steal a march on the competition; those that don’t will face a logistical migraine as they strive to understand what their customer wants and how they should respond accordingly.

Moira Clark, a Criticaleye Thought Leader and Professor of Strategic Marketing at Henley Business School, says: “To not have a concise, integrated strategy, is to be swimming against the tide. [Online and digital] has to be seen as another distribution and promotional channel and incorporated into the rest of the corporate and marketing strategy for the business… [Any] company that doesn’t do it in the near future may find themselves dead in the water.”

On the most basic level, it’s about connecting with those who use your business. Geraint says: “Putting the customer at the heart of the strategy has, for me, been the driving principle of business for more than 30 years. I often see companies spending time talking about the markets that they’re in and the technology they have, but few centre on the customer… But the markets don’t buy your products – customers do.”

Ignore this at your peril.

Please get in touch if you have any comments about the issues raised here.

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