“Winning brands are adaptive and have the tech and processes to listen to what customers are telling them”: how to ‘do’ great CX

Merkle’s Anne Stagg on customer expectation, responsible use of AI, a mutual understanding of the value of personal data and “keeping it simple” – the winning ingredients marketers need for customer experience.

Customer experience (CX) has been long-talked about as pivotal to success. But if the last three years have taught us anything, it’s that it’s become increasingly harder to ‘do’.

Demands and expectations from our consumers have, at times, been paradigm-shifting and brands can be forgiven for wondering how to keep up – and knowing whether it’s the be-all and end-all against many other competing objectives in this current climate.

Add to this the reams of tech available to enable a ‘personal’ touch, which is also always evolving – who hasn’t talked about generative AI yet this year or last – and it may feel like we’re chasing an impossible destination to be ‘perfect’ at CX. But, says Merkle’s UK CEO Anne Stagg, there’s no such thing. Keeping it simple, iterative and responsible will stand brands in good stead, as long as every decision has the customer at the heart of it.

Sitting down with PMW, Stagg uses her 25+ years of experience, including the more than two years at the helm of Merkle, to talk us through the data-driven performance mindset, silo breakdowns, tech benefits, but also the human touch that brands should be eyeing when it comes to a great CX experience.

Q: ‘Customer obsession’ is a much-banded phrase, but can you define what that means in practice?

“In the last three years with all of the curve balls we've been thrown, we've seen people's needs and expectations change very quickly. To me, being ‘customer obsessed’ means putting the customer at the very heart of decisions you make as a business, and being clear on how those decisions will improve the customer experience, brand mission, products or services.

“For a lot of organisations, that means moving from being product-centric – or silos – and that can mean fundamental changes to their business to galvanise teams around customers. CX transformation goes right across marketing, sales, service, and commerce and every CX transformation should result in a commerce engagement.

“The role of marketing is evolving within an organisation, and the roles of sales and marketing are coming much more closely together to centre around the customer. When I talk to a CMO, the first thing I'll say is ‘you need to be best friends with your CTO, your CIO, your Chief Commercial Officer’. And you all need to be clear about the KPIs your business is working towards, and come together to identify priorities in transforming the customer experience and delivering against those ever-changing needs of the customer”.

Q: Why should businesses prioritise customer expectation or CX?

“People are choosing their mission, who they want to work for, and with, and they’re considering what businesses stand for. They're certainly doing the same when it comes to the brands, products, and services they want to engage with.

“If you think about the legacy way in which people used to transform to get products or silos to deliver integrated messaging, it would take years to get data integrated or systems in place. As soon as you got there, the time to realise value was so long that the needs and expectations of customers have changed.

“Businesses that are winning are adaptive, agile and have the tools, technology systems and processes in place to really listen to what customers are telling them. That might be making sure they can connect their data so that in real time they can interpret digital prompts and behaviours to deliver on something that meets the customer's needs at that particular moment.

“But you need to start with identifying those customer use cases and make sure when you're looking at connecting tools and technologies to deliver against that, you start with the end in mind. And that you're really clear what the outcome is you're trying to affect; that there's a real value for the business in that outcome, but most importantly that you're looking at it from the customer’s perspective.”

Q: What are the human skill sets businesses should look to attract and retain to deliver on these objectives?

“Winning brands are those that partner, as an extension of their team rather than viewing them as suppliers, with their technology and agency partners. When we work with clients on their business transformation, a big part of the narrative is helping them figure out the future state for their business and how they need to be organised – and how we take their employees on that journey.

“You of course need technology skills and you need data savvy people. But there's a nuance to understanding that to create an engaging experience requires creativity, empathy and messaging – skills that have that human quality.”

Q: How can brands navigate through the plethora of tech choices and what should they prioritise when they make that choice, and integration, particularly with legacy systems they can’t just ‘pull out’?

“When we’re brought in [to a business], we ask, ‘what are the known blockers in the business to deliver a great customer experience? What are the limitations that you experience as a business?’ What people prioritise will depend on where they are on their transformation journey.

“A lot of brands have already invested in particular tools and tech, and the conversation with us then is, how do we realise value from our investment? That comes down to looking at how we use AI, how we use the ability to scale up and create rapid prototypes, trial and learn fast with Cloud to join datasets so that we can activate data across an organisation in a way that they've not been able to do previously.

“It’s also identifying specific use cases where we can deliver incremental value quickly. I think that's very much being technology agnostic – we can look at it and say, ‘you've already made that investment. Here's the connective pieces’.

“There are organisations that are so far behind the curve and they've got a much bigger job to do. That is an investment in tools and tech. When we do those big systems integrations, we will try to have a nurture period when we've put the tech in to help train the organisation to use it and to optimise it.

“To my mind there's two real big values with cloud engineering. One is scale – you can scale, host infrastructure and there's no limits. The other is in data preparation and activation for these prototype use cases where you can try quickly, test and learn, and you don't have to make huge investments in new tools and technologies. So in effect, using it to bridge the technology suite within the organisation.”

Q: Are businesses getting ahead of the curve of employing tech to deliver on CX, or are some still in the learning phase?

“People have recognised the need to manage and activate their own first-party data. If you can't own the relationship with the customer, you're not in control of your own destiny and you can't own your own growth.

“There's a lot of awareness that in the media landscape, you need to be targeting the right audiences, reaching out – not on mass – but to targeted audiences to actually get your brand message out there. It's the point at which you can then capture that and nurture them through the customer use case that people are working through. So it's the ‘find and win’ and then the ‘keep and grow’ aspect of first-party data as CRM.

“Often when we talk to brands about media, it’s about performance marketing and data driving performance through their business. We are talking about service as a differentiator, so understanding what people need. Connecting data, using first-party data for marketing, service, sales and commerce is widely understood, but people are definitely at varying levels of maturity and their ability to activate on that.”

Q: Personalisation is cited as being front and centre of the CX, but are there ways businesses can avoid being ‘over-automated’ or relying on basic demographics rather than getting into the true customer ‘experience’?

“It’s about using AI responsibly and recognising when to refresh data and models so you don't get legacy bias creeping in. It's about recognising the role of AI now; depending on the problem you're trying to solve, you might need a very different lens.

"There's a responsibility on data owners to really challenge how and where they use technology to make sure it's used to best effect to achieve the right goals, and using the data that you get back from these things as well.

“Real time information will tell you whether customers are engaging with your message, whether what you've predicted is resonating, whether they're moving through the purchase or whether they're calling the call centre because they can't find the information they need on the website.”

Q: Customers are realising that their data is valuable to businesses, so how should brands respond responsibly with that in mind?

“Brands know it as well. With personalisation comes an customer expectation – ‘if I'm giving you my data, I expect you to listen and I expect you to use it responsibly’.

“We're increasingly seeing brands looking to monetise their own first-party data and their own real estate. We're seeing some interesting developments around some major data owners in the industry that mean they want to move away from being so reliant just on a few very big parties for data and actually use their own tools.

“[Some] organisations can activate the data, but they can't get the creative assets to be as personal or as relevant as they want. That’s about looking at all aspects of the customer journey and the tools and tech, because it might be a case of being limited in the amount of creative assets you've got as you've got your creative house doing all your creative production. If you decouple, you can get greater scale and use your tech to activate across all channels. It's those practical solutions to limiting factors that technology can help solve.”

Q: Which businesses are in danger of falling behind the curve and losing out to competitors?

“I don’t know if it's falling behind the curve or simply having a more challenging transformation on their hands. That is often [the case for] very large businesses with legacy technology, where perhaps there are silos in place and it's not as easy to connect people around the customer.

“That's not to say they don't want to, or they're not making good progress. It's just harder. There's a lot to unpick or there's a lot of connecting to do before they can activate. But the key is quick wins in each area and looking for opportunities for connections across the board by putting the customer at the heart of those things.”

Q: How can brands avoid that utopian vision of the ‘perfect’ CX actually blocking their progress, particularly towards the start of the journey?

“Keep it simple and start with the end in mind. Define the outputs and centre the customer. Brands that are doing that are not over complicating it, because they're taking an agile, iterative approach to improvement that enables them to pivot if something's not working, or if a better opportunity comes along.

“It’s also about making sure everybody sitting around that C-suite table is aligned on what good looks like, setting the right KPIs, and prioritising the customer, and having working groups of people from across the organisation centred around that nursery program, onboarding program or customer service experience, and coming together to solve particular challenges.”