You might ask what the difference is between personalization and authenticity in CRM and the answer is subtle. For a long time I have felt—and said—that we over emphasize personalization when what customers really want is authenticity. But examples are hard to find, especially in our current culture where personalization is strongly emphasized and authenticity draws quizzical looks. Perhaps you are feeling that way right now.
Nonetheless, earlier this month in its August 10 and 17 double vacation issue The New Yorker served up a perfect example. For reasons that I don’t understand but am eternally grateful for, this magazine has, for many years, been an unofficial source of great material for the social CRM age. Malcolm Gladwell (author of many articles and books like Outliers and The Tipping Point) is an editor there as is James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds.
The article that impressed me comes almost literally out of left field. In “Learning to Speak Lingerie” Peter Hessler takes us on a trip to visit with Chinese lingerie entrepreneurs establishing a beachhead for their wares in upper Egypt. The Chinese are learning Arabic and have no familiarity with Islam or any other religion. They sell lingerie to women (accompanied by men and in one case a significant fraction of a woman’s whole family) who are dressed in traditional headscarves or more.
Despite the handicaps of language and culture, the Chinese are making inroads into the market and at one point in the article, I think you can see the handicaps working to advantage so that Chinese men are more effective at selling lingerie to Egyptian women than Egyptian men are.
Consider this: Through a translator, an Egyptian woman speaking to the reporter said, “I can’t describe how they [Chinese merchants] do it. But they can look at the item [of lingerie] and give it to the woman [i.e. a customer] and that’s it.”
That’s interesting but what comes next is key: “An Egyptian man would look at the item, and then look at the woman, and then he might make a joke or laugh about it.”
Wow! It feels creepy just reading that last sentence. Talk about personalization gone bad. The Chinese don’t have that problem in part because they’re still learning the language but also because they are focused on being authentic and in this case it means providing just enough service to help with selection and not trying to get into the mind space of the customer. Hessler documents this when he continues to quote the Egyptian woman, “When you buy something, you feel the thoughts of the person selling it. And with the Chinese their brains don’t go thinking about women’s bodies.”
This struck me as highly rational and to the point of good CRM. We make a big effort to personalize customer encounters and truth be told some of our efforts are really good and deserving of praise. But as in the example above, one person’s personalization can easily lead to another person’s feeling an insult with a resultant no sale.
That’s why my position is to favor authenticity whenever possible. It’s never perfectly clear when a customer will feel the love or something else so the question must be, why take the chance?
My suggestion to would-be personalizers is to first understand the moment of truth that your customer is actually in—it might not be what you think. Then work within the moment of truth to ensure that you are providing the authentic moment that customers want. You can’t do this unless you turn your data gathering and analytics toward metrics that tell you concretely how you’re doing. A man selling lingerie might be in particular danger of not understanding the customer’s moment of truth and personalizing it with an off-base comment (or offer) will only exacerbate an awkward moment.
Most products and services don’t serve intimate and private needs but they still come with moments of truth and customers still look for authenticity within them. I still believe that personalization is a decision on the part of the customer not the vendor. It often happens well past the halfway point of an encounter when the customer decides that, yes this fits my need in this moment of truth. That decision is often subliminal, but it certainly happens.
Self-service is generally considered a good thing, especially in CRM where there has been significant investment in empowering people to take on more responsibility for provisioning service or making purchases. But it’s not all great and there is some interesting blowback that is causing vendors to reconsider how their offerings work.
In sales, self-service has resulted in truncated sales cycles and fewer invitations to the dance—you know this problem. Customers do their own research and engage a company and its representatives later when they are looking for pricing for their final decisions. Once vendors could control the information flow and customers would need to engage just to get a basic fact, that’s not true today.
We all know this happened as an inevitable consequence of the Internet and now vendors are struggling to find ways to engage customers earlier in their processes so that they aren’t locked out of deals before they can even find out about them. Also, nobody wants to be engaged at the last minute when all they can do is price, propose, and pray. We’re definitely dealing with unforeseen consequences.
Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, self-service has an equal and opposite effect in customer service. Customers are very happy not to wait in phone queues to ask simple questions and as a result, social media, FAQs, knowledge bases, and communities are supplying solutions for many of the issues that once consumed service reps’ time—another benefit of the Internet. This also means fewer touches, fewer chances to make impressions of try for the additional sale.
This doesn’t mean service is dead. In fact, with the easy questions handled by other means, more or less, the volume of issues might go down but their complexity has risen. As a result, engaging with contact center folk might take longer because even these veterans no longer have answers on the tips of their tongues and they have to do research. I don’t think this is as simple as a training issue. To be a service rep today means juggling more information, harder issues, and more customers.
This argues for a paradigm shift in sales and service, which is being driven by analytics and journey mapping. Previous approaches to sales as well as marketing have been reactive—the customer asks and the vendor responds. That makes a lot of sense because it is the nature of a conversation. But I’d suggest that conversations are not what customers seek. What they want is a relationship based on authentic engagement that is there when you want it but then vanishes.
Certainly, as customers, we seek and expect professionalism in all dimensions from the speed of dealing with us, to the correctness of whatever is provided as a solution to our needs. Too often though, we get wound around the axel of personalization because we erroneously believe we need to develop a personal relationship with customers but I think that’s a misunderstanding of the R in CRM. There are lots of ways to relate and most of them don’t become personal.
Let me suggest that the real goal should be the authenticity that’s born of professionalism and steeped in the understanding that as customers we’re busy and we want to get our issues dealt with so that we can move on to the next thing on our daily bucket lists.
That’s where analytics, especially machine learning, and journey mapping come in and while we’re at it this is the nub of what I am calling Customer Science. Machine learning can analyze your customer data and tell you where the clusters are, where the largest proportion of issues are and what the successful activities will be. With a product, you might discover through machine learning that many people get stuck at the same place or that they have a specific difficulty at the same place in a business process.
Armed with this knowledge, you can become proactive by building journey maps of your processes and thus prepare for the inevitable. Should you also use this knowledge to fix or improve a broken product or process? Absolutely. But that’s another department. In service and sales you have to deal with today’s reality today. So building out your repertoire of solutions for known moments of truth is a great way to build authenticity. It ensures your precision and professionalism and gets your customers back to their lives with minimal fuss.
So what’s better authenticity or personalization? Why must we think we need to choose? A warm greeting is always welcome and demonstrating empathy for a customer issue is not only good business, it is humane. It just shouldn’t be the only trick in our kits because no amount of being nice substitutes for a solution.
I was having dinner the other night with friends, telling them about some of the ideas in my book, Solve for the Customer. My friend, we can call him Brian though it’s a pseudonym, was interested in my emphasis on process and my belief that Customer Science has evolved from a general emphasis on process in business, especially in the back office.
Brian’s company does a lot to ensure that its customers are happy and loyal because their business involves long term relationships and agreements that renew for many years at a time. These relationships can last decades and nurturing them can be part of the work of a career. I know this because we’re both in our 50’s and Brian has had the same customers for a very long time.
That’s the kind of relationship that is worthy of the name. Account managers can come and go but Brian, who manages a region with many account managers, still knows many of the customers by name. So I was interested to understand how his company approaches the issues of bonding and retention, satisfaction and loyalty. Not surprisingly, his company’s approach to customers uses direct person-to-person contact and it has built up over time. So it is still a very manual process and while that’s not a bad thing, it can be expensive. Account managers call on their customers frequently and always have a punch list of issues, usually but not exclusively, maintenance issues, to deal with. It’s a high touch business.
In addition to the frequent communications, which happen mostly between maintenance people on one side and operations people on the other, my friend’s company conducts an annual survey of customer executives to gauge account health and they place extra emphasis on customer retention issues, especially when a five-year contract is up for renewal.
I was impressed. Despite only having an annual survey, the personnel involved gathered customer data all the time providing a more real time pulse. Here was a company with its head in the right place and a mere two percent annual attrition rate to prove it. That’s right two, 2, TWO percent. Many people reading this right now would go to extremes to have that kind of number. People in the subscription market tell me that a 90 percent retention rate or better is quite good and many are happy to reach that threshold though few see the likes of 2 percent attrition. So in addition to being impressed, I was also skeptical that very many companies could have similar results in today’s business world if they relied on their existing customer facing processes and systems.
Having full time people managing accounts like this is not cheap and many industries won’t support that overhead nor will their customers accept five or ten year agreements that renew. So if we want similar results in many other businesses, we need to find ways to automate parts of the relationship to both speed up some processes and to reduce costs. At the same time though, we need to be mindful that at some point we might need to insert an expensive employee into the mix to assure a good outcome.
Applying resources is where I believe we fall down too often when dealing with customers. We’ve put a little too much faith in our legacy technologies that were made for simple lookup and retrieval but not necessarily for solving customer issues. For example, in SftC I have this example from an automated system:
“We are sold out of: 32 ct. Tums Ultra Chewy, cherry antacids (245-05-0141). Please substitute: 10-ct. Trojan bare skin condoms (245-03-0387).”
Clearly the automated system is out of its depth but so is the business’ expectation that automation can take care of all customer issues. But ironically, automation can do something even better.
Part of my enthusiasm for Customer Science is my belief that it can solve many customer issues in sales, marketing, and service, if we apply and use analytics and journey mapping to the customer’s journey. There’s nothing wrong with having a customer facing system suggest an alternative for a customer wanting to buy an out of stock item. It’s a good use of analytics and journey mapping unless it all goes wrong as in the example above.
Also, and this is key, no automated process should have as one of its assumptions that the automation is infallible. So Customer Science also suggests that analytics and journey mapping ought to be used to promote self-monitoring. Is this the right substitution? What recourse does the customer have if this is not the right substitution? Is the customer happy with this? How do we know?
If we take approaches to our customer facing processes that include modeling all of the possibilities that we need to provide for, a.k.a. moments of truth, and capturing and analyzing customer feedback, we can approach things like customer bonding which leads to advocacy and loyalty, with the expectation that our automated processes can yield the same kinds of retention rates as a more labor intensive one.
Last point, we spend a lot of thought cycles on personalizing a relationship, at least the part when the vendor and customer are in a moment of truth but I am skeptical that this is the right approach. Personal is nice, but in a business or commercial relationship what’s needed is authenticity not personalization. The business system that suggested condoms instead of antacids won’t get extra points if it addresses the customer by name. But if it suggested a store band of antacid as a legitimate substitute it likely would have preserved the transaction and at the end of the day the authenticity that can drive a transaction is what matters to both the customer and the business.