How To Win In The New Era Of Customer Experience

APIs and a major focus on accuracy and privacy are among the tools and approaches effective brands are targeting today.

Brands have led consumers worldwide to count on the customer experience (CX) to be near nirvana, a frictionless and omnichannel state of being. With data- and connectivity-facilitated digital platforms fulfilling customers’ loftiest expectations for products, services and commercial relationships, brands must go above and beyond to cleverly anticipate and meet wants and needs that customers may not even have articulated.

But the reality is that even the “perfect marketplace” offered by the internet, modern communications via cell phones, and the explosion in Big Data led by sensors and monitors in the Internet of Things have produced a much less ideal—and much more complicated—new era of CX. It’s marred by flaws including brand over-reach, loss of consumer privacy and an inability of technology platforms and their customers to provide a complete and integrated picture of individual customers.

So often consumers are more disappointed than inspired, sensing a glimmer of the possibilities for sublime customer experiences but mostly encountering brands that fall badly short in one area or another and that may end up hurting their cause more than helping it. This broad failure to optimize CX helps explain why CEOs in a recent Chief Executive survey prioritized “shifting focus to consumer retention” as their biggest concern for 2022, with 41% of those polled in July citing it as an action they had taken or considered taking over the previous three months. Boosting customer retention far and away was the most-expressed priority, while “speeding up automation/digital transformation” registered second, with 32%, and a “hiring freeze” was No. 3, cited by 26% of chiefs surveyed.

The customer experience discipline, involving brand stewards, consumer scientists and technology wizards, must respond to this disappointment with understanding and discretion as well as new levels of technological cooperation that provide complete and seamless pictures of the customers they’re targeting.

Focus on the Ecosystem

“Companies that are trying to get better at the consumer experience are starting to focus on the consumer ecosystem,” Lou Powell, executive vice president of solutions and innovation for Concentrix Catalyst, said at a recent roundtable for sponsored by the global company that designs and engineers customer-experience platforms for building value and market leadership for its clients.

“We’re starting to see companies moving beyond point-to-point integration concerns and create more of a holistic experience for the consumer. They’re trying to create a product and experience that looks at the different concerns consumers have at various points along their journey as a customer.”

Concentrix Catalyst is solving customer service frustrations through a strategic approach to the development and implementation of application programming interfaces (APIs), a software intermediary that allows multiple applications to talk with one another. 

The idea behind APIs has been to make data and services more accessible and flexible and allow brands to provide consumers with more complete and integrated digital experiences, from store-inventory information to access to real-time patient data for telehealth appointments. The wonders of APIs can be as simple as a “beacon” in a supermarket that issues an on-the-spot coupon to a shopper who has picked a specific item off a shelf and plopped it in the cart.

The key to effective deployment of APIs is to treat them more like products so that clients can realize value from their API investments. When these interfaces are “productized,” businesses can go to market with an API program that is customer-centric.

To effectively productize APIs, the company has found, deploying organizations must focus on digital ecosystems from the car to the web, wearables, the connected home and more—not simply on a company’s interactions or revenue. That means they must focus on the jobs the customer wants done, not solely on the revenue that customer brings to the organization.

Here are four rules for effective productization of APIs:

Align leadership. Successful API programs are more than just a matter of adopting new technology but rather represent a shift in how organizations design, build and run their efforts to provide consumer value. Leaders must mandate alignment of API activities with these broader goals.

Allocate funding per value. Stop measuring success by integration or channel success when it comes to API funding. Instead, meet broader needs by funding teams to build productized APIs on the basis of allocated project funding.

Cut across the organization. Instead of relying on siloed and legacy structures to create APIs that have a holistic aim, create a dedicated, multi-functional team that represents all disciplines required to define, build and release an API.

Leverage a locus for success. Create a specific role dedicated to delivering quality APIs: the digital platform owner. This role will bring a higher-level view than an API product manager and will be responsible for shaping capabilities across the portfolio to deliver more reliable, scalable APIs. (See this whitepaper for more on APIs.)

So far, obstacles to effective productization of APIs have included the fact that “there is no company that has the same DNA as another company when it comes to communication structures, organization and decision-making,” Powell said. But Concentrix Catalyst and others are working on the challenge.

“The customer experience is dependent on so many different data stores that you’re going to have to create suites of integration that create comprehensive solutions,” Powell said. “You’re going to have to get really good at creating APIs.”

The Challenges

At the recent StrategicCIO360 roundtable, Powell and a handful of CEOs, CIOs and other tech-oriented chiefs discussed APIs and the overall challenges of improving CX. Some observations and lessons that emerged from the discussion include:

Reckon with expectations. Today’s consumers assume that “when they put connected devices in, for a very clear benefit, they probably expect to trade some information,” said Sean Miller, CEO of Griot, which runs a work-organization app. “But then people sort of examine, ‘What am I getting from this relationship with this device?’ They’re more aware and questioning: ‘Does this feel balanced, and am I getting a fair value for [the information and access] I’m giving them in return?’ If you don’t know what the product is, you’re not the customer—you’re the product.”

Some highly connected relationships with customers end up working smoothly, as in many Americans’ tacit agreement with Amazon’s Prime service, which uses massive data about individual customers “in a mutually beneficial understanding of the value of the information that I’m giving and the value I get in return,” as Powell put it.

“But now there’s a big shift, from an idealistic thing that kind of was out there to now we’re in a place where this is not ideal, and a place where we’ve got to start having a conversation about [customers’] concerns.”

Get it right. Consumers can be unforgiving if they believe brands are not cherishing, and even abusing, their unprecedented access to data about individuals. For example, many brands have created a comprehensive picture of individual targets and then pursue them digitally wherever they go, countering the fact that many consumers use their own control over access points to create and maintain divisions in their lives.

“People like me who use multiple email addresses are starting to see a bleed-over between those multiple email addresses in marketing,” noted Robert Prange, senior vice president of IT and CIO of Tri-City National Bank. “And I would actually prefer that didn’t happen, but there’s really no way to opt out of that kind of bleed-over between my work and personal accounts.”

Powell noted that such practices make it more difficult for brands and their tech suppliers to gain consumers’ trust. “We start to ask them some of the most intimate questions and expect them to just be incredibly comfortable answering and sharing all of this very personal information,” Powell said. “The question is, what does that look like to build and create trust relationships, because that’s going to be key to creating and maintaining those customers over time.”

Put the “serve” in service. Customer service is another area where consumers believe brands continue to come up short. Many companies have moved as much of the customer-query experience as possible to online assistance, but there remains too much overlap between what customers can do online to start the query process and what they’re asked to do by a human customer-service rep once they turn to that option.

“Brands waste their time by asking [customers] to do things they’ve already done and that [companies] can see they’ve already done” online, Miller noted. “People really get frustrated about that today, and it sort of makes support such a bad experience for a lot of brands.”

Respect privacy. Companies also have been frustrating shoppers by continuing to violate individual privacy even though pleas to get tech companies doing exactly that have become not only a major commercial issue but a significant social issue in western economies. 

“Technology in essence has lost the trust of the public,” said Michael Conway, chief technology officer of Bidtellect, a programmatic ad-purchasing platform.

Another practice that will improve CX for actual customers is transparency, Conway said. “In every other industry, you understand the supply chain from beginning to end, from where products are built to where they are delivered, and who takes a piece of change along the way, whether it’s shipping or whatever,” he said. “To create trust, you have to make it transparent; you have to provide that visibility into where all those costs are and how you’re using their data. And make it clear to the user that it’s only being used for a single purpose.”

Advertisers also are turning more to “frequency capping” so that a single consumer consolidated under a global ID won’t get overwhelmed by seeing the same spot. “Most of our campaigns will limit you to a max of three [times] per 24 hours for the same creative, so that you don’t get bombarded and get punch-drunk seeing the same thing over and over again.”

Whatever your approach to improving CX, it’s clear that you have to begin by putting the customer first. The minute consumers feel underestimated—or worse, exploited—you’ve lost them.

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