An SMB playbook for customer experience management

by Giselle Abramovich

Posted on 08-13-2020

Today’s consumers are exposed to an ongoing feed of content and experiences across digital channels and technology platforms. And while the meaning or form of engagement may be different across these various touch points, one thing remains consistent: People expect frictionless, personalized, and relevant experiences regardless of medium.

Indeed, research from eMarketer finds 72 percent of internet users worldwide say they would change service providers or brands if served disconnected online experiences — and people aren’t more forgiving based on the size of the company they are dealing with. This means that effective customer experience management (CXM) is key for businesses both big and small.

But what exactly is customer experience management? At Adobe we define CXM as the ability for companies to orchestrate and personalize the entire end-to-end customer experience, across channels, moment to moment, at scale, and in real time. It means correctly sequenced interactions that build off of one another and add value to the customer, while moving them through their journey with the brand.

“For many smaller companies, managing the customer journey can be a challenging process, but we’ve found that building a foundation for customer experience management is imperative to an organization’s digital transformation, as it improves processes with a direct impact on costs and ultimately with an improvement in business profitability,” says Jose Maria Beltramini, CEO of Summa Solutions.

According to Timothy Willis, founder and managing director of C3, there are many small- and medium-sized businesses that are just taking their first steps online, having recently realized the value of digital due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he says, there are also some SMBs that have been online since their inception and are “pushing the boundaries with exciting and innovative new concepts. If we had to say where the majority falls,” Willis says, “it would be somewhere in the middle. They likely have an online store or digital presence, but there is much more potential that isn’t being tapped.”

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According to Ranjana Sharma, managing director of e-commerce at Weidenhammer, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator in 2020 — and SMBs must take note.

Image source: Walker Research

To help SMBs navigate customer-centric transformation and more effectively manage CX across channels, experts have identified the following keys to success.

1. Understand what digital transformation entails: People, process, and technology

According to Beltramini, the No. 1 thing holding back the growing businesses from digitalization and effective customer experience management is linked to a misconception on what digital transformation is. Many smaller companies view it as an expensive technology investment, and while technology is a part of the strategy, there’s a lot more that goes into transforming.

“Many of the SMBs we talk to view digital transformation as the upgraded term for what their IT function does,” Beltramini says. “They think of it as something extremely complex and expensive. Others focus their transformation squarely on digital marketing or sales. Very few have a broad, holistic view of what digital really means, and even for them it’s hard to understand the value of data and to deal with siloed information on a daily basis.” All of this, he says, is key to building a foundation for effectively managing end-to-end customer experiences.

Case in point: When Jaime Punishill joined Lionbridge in 2017 as CMO, he was tasked with leading the company’s marketing transformation. Step one was setting the vision toward where the company and marketing organization needed to go. Step two was figuring out whether or not he had the right people in place to really drive that vision forward.

“I’m a huge believer that if you’re changing your vision and your endpoints in your operating model, you’re not being honest with yourself if you think that you’re going to get there with the same people who got you into the situation you just declared you have to change,” says Punishill, in a previous interview where he detailed the company’s digital transformation.

2. Arm yourself with the right teams

Indeed, full-on transformation involves rethinking processes, a mind-shift to placing customers at the heart of all decision-making, as well as investing in the technology that can digitalize, automate, and streamline workflows. SMBs must also look closely at hiring and retraining talent to make customer-centric digital transformation a reality.

Part of the people equation at Lionbridge meant re-skilling existing talent. Punishill also brought on new talent in order to create a different culture in terms of how the marketing team would operate and interact with the rest of the company.

Amit Ahuja, Adobe’s VP of ecosystem development, said in a previous interview that companies need to hire people with data chops and the “altitude and aperture” to be able to understand where all the data sits and how to bring it into a central place.

“It is imperative to have people who know and understand the customer, can get friendly and intimate with analytics, and just have a knack for the types of experiences customers demand across the full spectrum of customer touch points that exist with your brand,” Ahuja said.

According to Gary Specter, VP of Adobe’s commercial business, who recently addressed the SMB community with a keynote at Adobe’s Experience Maker’s Live event, the problem is that many SMBs, who are inherently prioritizing growth, tend to focus their digital strategies on short-term gains. “My advice? Invest in the technologies, processes, and people that drive your business in the long term.”

Because many SMB companies still struggle to connect their digital strategy to key business priorities like customer experience and growth, they often find themselves in what Summa’s Beltramini referred to as “fast-churning waters of digital adoption and change.”

Adobe’s Specter says that SMBs must think about digital strategy in the context of the customer. Customer journey mapping plays an important role. A customer journey map is a visual representation of all of the possible points of engagement that a customer has with your brand. Most organizations use journey maps to identify gaps and friction in the experience so that they can try to eliminate or reduce them. Research finds that those companies that do journey mapping right drive top- and bottom-line value in measurable, significant ways, with up to 200 percent greater employee engagement and 350 percent more revenue from customer referrals. Sounds like a no-brainer, but the truth is, less than 40 percent of companies have established processes for mapping their customer journeys.

The above is a template for a customer journey map, which gives an overview of some of the information that’s important to consider including. (Click here to view a larger version in a new tab.)

According to Adobe’s Specter, “Relationships aren’t built based on one-time interactions. They are built through a series of engagements that are complementary to one another, and happening across a plethora of channels and technology. Making those experiences connected, complementary, and frictionless is imperative.”

Weidenhammer’s Sharma points to research from KPMG, which provides the following framework for journey management:

Image Source: KPMG

For SMBs, this framework developed by KPMG gives a “comprehensive way of looking at their business and managing all four pieces individually, while keeping the whole picture in mind,” Sharma says. “Every area needs to be optimized. Optimization involves looking carefully into how to identify the areas where customers might get disappointed. And remember, when you fail to deliver, communication with customers can play a significant role in changing a bad experience into a fulfilling, happy experience.”

4. Get a handle on your data

Specter says he’s a big believer that empathy creates customer loyalty. “When you’re empathetic in what you do, how you sell and how you think about your customers, it strikes a chord, and if you’re legitimate about it and sincere about it, it creates loyalty,” he says. The key to having empathy is data and customer intelligence around people’s preferences, past engagements, purchases, and more. But when looking at SMBs and where they are on the data maturity curve, many are still behind because they don’t have the resources to buy the right solutions to gather and analyze their data.

“In talking to our commercial customers here at Adobe, we see that they absolutely understand the power of data every bit as much as an enterprise company,” Specter says. “The problem is it’s not high on their list of priorities as they just may not have the resources to immediately put it into play. The irony is that smaller companies are able to act very fast on data when compared to large enterprises. SMBs also have smaller IT infrastructures, so the ability to gather data and have a single view of the customer is less complex than what you see in a large enterprise.”

For SMBs that put data high up on the priority list, the benefits are aplenty. Lionbridge is a great example, as the company focused its digital strategy around building a data architecture to fuel understanding of their customers. With a new and improved data pipeline, Lionbridge can engage with customers more quickly (shortening the marketing-to-sales cycle), and swiftly advance from targeted content to retargeting, omnichannel interaction, and sales reach-out faster than before.

“As a company, you need to be able to harness all the power of your data, all the power of your content (or be alerted when you need better or more content and the workflows to enable that), and to be able to then action off that and provide the right customer experience,” Ahuja says. “Technology can enable that.”

C3’s Willis agrees that data is the foundation for effectively managing customer experiences across channels and urges SMBs to prioritize data collection and insights just as they would prioritize their marketing and sales strategy. Additionally, he says, “they can make use of the deeper connection that they often have with their customers to also obtain detailed and qualitative feedback.”

5. Analytics is your data foundation and a key enabler of CXM

Weidenhammer’s Sharma says that data analytics and insights are essential to running an operationally reliable business that delivers good customer experience. “These are the breadcrumbs to finding problem areas in the shopping experience,” she says.

“There is a range of solutions that provide an immediate, measurable impact on business,” according to Sharma. “A/B and multivariant testing help proactively manage what content will resonate with customers. … [and] there is so much insight available to make the right decisions and fix customer experience issues. The key is to make [analytics] part of running the business efficiently.”

If you’re a small to mid-size business, chances are you are taking a multichannel approach to online customer engagement. From your website to e-mail, video, mobile, and social — a plethora of data is being generated across these different channels.

“The more channels there are, the more complex their administration,” Beltramini says, adding that when it comes to CXM-enabling technology, integration and interoperation between channels is one of the most important considerations. “Breaking down data silos is probably one of the biggest challenges that small- and medium-sized businesses face today.”

According to Specter, analytics is the foundation for effective customer experience management, since you need to understand your customers’ behavior and make predictions based on it in order to truly serve them the best possible experience across channels.

C3’s Willis says that today most SMBs are comfortable with a basic level of personalization (think: email marketing and geotargeting for language and currency). “However, nowadays customers are expecting much more than this,” he says. “They’re seeking personalization that provides direct value to them, such as AI-driven product recommendations and a tailored homepage. This level of sophisticated technology is most easily introduced through partnering with solution providers, so SMBs should consider this route to improve their CXM.”

Hostelworld, an OTA based in Dublin, Ireland, is a good example of how analytics can fuel effective customer experience management. According to Otto Rosenberger, CMO of Hostelworld Group, analytics is “the foundation of [Hostelworld’s] digital marketing strategy. It helps us learn more about our customers so that we can build more personalization to encourage greater community interaction,” he says. Since making data and analytics a priority, Hostelworld has seen a 500 percent increase in engagement across its digital channels.

Adobe’s Specter says analytics can help companies figure out who their best customers are and better understand their buying habits, which can inform loyalty strategies and programs, among other experiences.

6. Remember: Content is still king in the customer experience era

Weidenhammer’s Sharma says that content creation is a must to effectively engage customers online.

“When it comes to merchandising, it has to be embedded with storytelling, inspiring the customer to buy the product,” Sharma says. “[When] done right, content creation builds on the brand story. It is part of the customer experience, which creates brand loyalty.”

However, she warns, content creation and distribution are expensive and require resources, tools, and effective management of the marketing budget. The good news for small businesses is that there are a range of solutions to choose from depending on their budget.

Summa’s Beltramini says that making content available at scale is important to engaging customers online. However, it may not be possible (or strategic) for a small business to create content for all channels, so you have to choose which ones can best achieve a “participatory community.”

Data is key here, as is the ability to test multiple types of content. In fact, Beltramini says, A/B testing is one of the most important features to look for when selecting a content management system for small teams working on a large scale.

Through A/B testing content, marketers can increase website performance even further by determining which content to promote, and where on the website it should live, or other channels it should go. Progrexion, a credit repair expert based in Salt Lake City, Utah, is doing a lot of work to better understand what prompts website visitors to take the next step and actually engage with the company’s content. Through a test-and-learn strategy — with four to eight tests running per week — the company has been able to make more informed decisions around the best content. The end result? A 14 percent lift in website conversions.

Adobe’s Specter says that content is a great way for SMBs to attract and retain customers, which is “highly reflective of a company’s ability to serve relevant content, make engagements personalized, and provide the right content at the right time. Just because you are a small company doesn’t mean that the importance of content gets diminished. What gets diminished is my ability to execute on it.”

According to Beltramini, recognition of your audience through personalized content as well as orchestration of the promotional touch points to promote that content is key to effective CXM.

7. Make transactions seamless

According to Adobe’s Specter, how companies facilitate the actual transaction so that it delivers on a company’s data, content and marketing efforts, is critical to whether the customer transaction actually takes place. With 60 to 80 percent of online transactions being abandoned—for a litany of reasons such as unexpected shipping costs and confusing checkout—closing the deal isn’t a given.

And in retail in particular, a 50% return rate is a real threat to business growth; so merchandizing, product information (think: great imagery, fit guidance, styling) and social proof (a.k.a. reviews, customer validation, et cetera) are important. How the brand promise is extended through the fulfillment and delivery process is also a key contributor to whether the customer returns.

“People don’t easily forget unexpectedly bad packaging or never knowing if or when their order got shipped,” Specter said. “The shopping experience has to reflect the brand and its promise in an authentic way in order for all the steps in the customer journey (the path to purchase) to work harmoniously together.”

For small to mid-size companies, the opportunity lies in picking an e-commerce platform that not only meets their immediate needs but is also able to give them the flexibility to adjust and grow at the pace and scale that they need. “All too often,” Specter said, “SMBs go for the quick fix and find out the hard way that it’ll cost them a boatload of money to sell internationally or list their products on Amazon or support their wholesale operations. The last thing you want as a small business is to have your technology choices limit your growth and ability to respond to market and customer shifts.”

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Topics: Digital Transformation, Customer Stories, Content Management, Personalization, Campaign Management, Analytics, Commerce, Customer Intelligence, Campaign Orchestration, Experience-Driven Commerce, Customer Story, Experience Cloud, Artificial Intelligence