The Critical CX Factor

If exceptional customer experiences will become the key brand differentiator, are IT teams up to the task?

By Charlotte Jensen

By Charlotte Jensen May 3, 2019

The responsibility for customer experience (CX) typically rests on the marketing team — but not for much longer. Experts say shifting customer behaviors and new technologies are driving up the importance of CX as a key brand differentiator. To succeed, CX expertise will need to span multiple organizational teams, and IT departments could find themselves in the front seat.

“The role of IT is really the foundation of everything surrounding the consumer experience,” said Paul Miser, CEO and co-founder of Chinatown Bureau, a consumer experience and transformation agency in New York City. “The trend of moving beyond advertising to experiences is definitely a new muscle that major corporations will have to build, and that will require IT investment across the board.”

Graphic by Gartner, Inc. showing results from the Customer Experience in Marketing Survey: Greater Expectations, Greater Challenges, Augie Ray, Jane-Anne Mennella, Simon Yates, Refreshed 9 April 2019, Published 5 October 2017 Source: Gartner, Inc., Customer Experience in Marketing Survey: Greater Expectations, Greater Challenges, Augie Ray, Jane-Anne Mennella, Simon Yates, Refreshed 9 April 2019, Published 5 October 2017

Indeed, Gartner’s 2018 CEO and Senior Business Executive Survey found IT to be the third-highest business priority among respondents.

Current IT Discrepancy

And yet, despite the growing trend of digital transformation, according to Gartner’s 2017 Customer Experience in Marketing Survey: Greater Expectations, Greater Challenges, which was refreshed on April 9, 2019, only 8% of respondents said IT owned their CX strategy budget, compared to 59% who answered marketing. Additionally, according to the research, “For each building block of a CX program, more than 32% of respondents indicate that marketing solely leads — this is a management model that could inadvertently create problems.”

The report highlighted the downside of such an approach: “CX outcomes tend to be diminished when marketing or any other single department attempts to lead and execute CX by itself.”

Companies are realizing that CX strategies can’t operate in organizational silos. “Working cross-functionally is the number-one best practice you should focus on,” said Leon Papkoff, founder and chief strategist of The CXApp, a SaaS mobile platform business in Pleasanton, Calif.

But IT’s role should extend beyond mere implementation partner. According to Miser, “It is crucial that there is a process in place to have IT integrated throughout the strategy, ideation, conceptual and development phases of CX initiatives.”

AI and Other Channels for Growth

IT investment in artificial intelligence (AI), for example, lets companies really raise the bar on customer interactions, said Kevin O’Dell, CTO of Stratifyd, an end-to-end customer data analytics company in Charlotte, N.C. “Even just basic applied AI is taking tasks that humans were doing and automating them to get done faster, better and more accurately,” he said.

AI also impacts important business metrics like customer satisfaction and churn, said Ravi Puvan, VP of product management at Intouch Insight, a customer experience management company with headquarters in Fort Mills, S.C, and Ottawa, Canada. “AI can help organizations uncover insights faster, driving faster ROI,” he said.

But it’s not just AI. Add to that augmented reality, biometrics, chatbots, facial recognition, geolocalization, IoT, machine learning and wayfinding. High-tech tools and trends in the CX space continue to evolve at a dizzying pace.

“It’s not just technology for technology’s sake,” said Piers Fawkes, founder of PSFK, a retail intelligence firm in New York City. Companies should consider every touch point and strategically create smart, meaningful human experiences, he said. “They can use technology to create surprise and delight at various moments along the purchase path, which allows them to compete with some of the big players in the market.”

For retail, that could mean an interactive display that instantly recognizes the customer and their preferences, or a delivery date personalized exactly to that buyer’s schedule, he said.

“The goal should be making CX totally seamless across experiences, digital touchpoints and in-person interactions with physical spaces,” Papkoff said.

The most seamless experiences will be proactive, not just reactive, according to Puvan. “Companies that can successfully make this shift will improve the experience and deliver what customers want before a customer complains or asks for it,” he said. “A CX solution that has the capability to import data from any source — think call center, HR software, POS, etc. — will give organizations the edge they need to stay one step ahead of their customers’ expectations.”

Creating Emotional Bonds

But automation, chat windows and bots can only go so far. Brands must be careful their technology works to create an emotional bond with the customer, said Fawkes. The best CX strategies will prioritize solutions based not just on data, but also empathy. Many companies already use technology to connect the two, such as by predicting customer failure, flagging customer complaints and using metrics to direct when your team should respond

“Modern CX solutions have incorporated technology like sentiment and tone analytics to determine nuanced customer emotions like gratitude, frustration, impatience, etc. over the course of an interaction,” said Puvan. “Sentiment analysis can be used on text from open-ended survey responses, social media, chat transcripts, etc. to determine the way a customer feels.

Two women collaborating at a computer screen. Photo by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels

“Tone analytics can be used to decipher customer emotion from voice or video recordings and phone conversations,” Puvan continued. “This analysis can be executed in real time, giving the frontline support agent unprecedented insight into a customer’s emotions, and can guide the agent on how to alter their approach to prevent a negative situation from escalating further.”

AI-assisted tools like predictive software and voice analysis aren’t perfect (yet), but exceptional brands will continually find ways to make even the most high-tech CX interactions more personable at every single step of the buyer’s journey.

What’s Next

So what will the ultimate CX look like in the next few years and beyond? Experts use words like “automated,” “constantly changing,” “flexible,” “fluid” and “interconnected” to describe the customer experience of the future. Someday it will all be very seamless, with IT helping to identify the big picture and create the best solutions.

“Eventually, CX will become the very lifeblood of the company,” said Papkoff. He pointed to findings from a recent Walker Information study: By 2020, “customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator.” Companies that fail to modernize their CX strategies now will “simply get left behind,” he said.

“In some ways, it’s going to look like what it looked like 100 years ago,” said Fawkes. “People walking into stores and having personal interactions with people, with sales associates who remember you from the last time you walked in. There are some truths that don’t change. People like to be recognized. People like to have [that] human connection.”

Graphic and research data published with permission: Gartner Press Release, Gartner Survey Reveals that CEO Priorities Are Shifting to Embrace Digital Business, May 1, 2018.

Charlotte Jensen is a contributing writer who specializes in business topics. She is the former executive editor of award-winning Entrepreneur magazine. Find her on Twitter @JensenChar.

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