By Leslie Gospill
Despite a cool logo, great products, or killer pricing, your organization isn’t what you say it is. From here on out, your company is what your customers say it is. The challenge for business leaders is to find ways to engage with today’s digitally empowered purchasers by effectively hearing, nurturing, and promoting the voice of the customer to drive sales, reduce costs, and maintain loyalty.
“We’ve entered what Forrester calls the age of the customer,” says Megan Burns, VP/principal analyst, Forrester Research. “It’s a 20-year business cycle where the most successful companies, in order to be successful, are really going to have to obsess about serving their customers,” she adds, noting that customer engagement is now the single-most important differentiator in the marketplace.
Spanning both business to business (B2B) and business to consumer (B2C) environments, the very notion of “customer engagement” is leading a sea change in the way customer service, support, sales, marketing, and virtually all departments interact with buyers—and, in turn, with one another. Software companies are responding, en masse, with a proliferation of products aimed at customer engagement optimization. With departmental silos being blurred in the name of “customer obsession,” workforce optimization software is also considered an important byproduct among many developers.
To join this emerging market, some of the more established customer-service and call-monitoring firms—such as Eptica and Verint, refresh their legacy offerings through acquisitions and by tweaking existing capabilities. Others, like SAP, approach engagement from a “customer relationship management (CRM)-on-steroids” perspective. And a few, newer companies—like Hubspot, Lithium, and Nimble—strive to be disrupters with their seemingly simple-but-powerful widgets and applications that live inside popular email and calendar applications.
In almost all cases, these software companies are at varying levels of development in adapting to today’s omni-channel, multi-device, always-on approach to customer engagement. This year promises new releases that further expand capabilities.
Customer Service as the Hub of Customer Engagement
The 10,000 companies worldwide that use Verint in their call centers and on the sales floors have always heard the voice of the customer; they just didn’t realize the power of that voice. Now, thanks to its 2014 acquisition of Kana customer service solutions, Verint positions itself as a comprehensive platform for customer engagement—and, in turn, organizational transformation, according to Ryan Hollenbeck, SVP, global marketing, Verint.
“When you talk about customer engagement, the intention is to deliver constant, contextual, and personalized experiences, seamlessly—no matter what channels the customer uses,” he says. “Then you aggregate, analyze, and act on what the customer tells you.” Getting it right crosses virtually every department and system within an organization. “When you think about all the ways you engage with your customers, you can’t think of it from a channel standpoint. The key is to have at your employees’ fingertips, all the tools they need to enrich every customer interaction,” adds Hollenbeck.
Customers see interactions like e-commerce, chat, email, and phone as a single process, he explains, and they expect every contact point to have the same information about them—instantly—when an issue arises.
That’s where workforce optimization comes in, notes Steven Thurlow, VP and global practice leader for engagement management, Verint. “When you learn what the customer needs, you can optimize the workforce to meet those needs—through call recording, quality monitoring, learning and coaching, scheduling, and forecasting—all with the intention of helping employees be as effective as possible in serving customers,” he says.
Verint’s platform is strong on case management, Web self-service, knowledge management, live chat and co-browsing, and a unified agent desktop. Because of its widespread use in the financial industry and other verticals where security is essential, most deployments are managed service offerings. It’s a leader from a customer-service perspective, and ranked as a “niche” company in Gartner’s 2015 Magic Quadrant for the CRM Customer Engagement Center.
Great interaction with a company can delight customers who will then become influencers and repeat buyers, creating the ideal, endless customer lifecycle that companies desire. The knock against platforms like Verint’s is that they still lean toward an inside-out engagement perspective and are focused primarily on customer service and trouble shooting, rather than the total customer engagement/buying journey. New releases promise to continue to address these concerns.
Zendesk, also with a foundation in customer service, has a strong following in the small- to medium-business market. It appears to have successfully rebranded itself as a more end-to-end platform by integrating well with other popular content management, marketing automation, and CRM tools.
Another customer service provider, Paris, France-based Eptica, kicked off its 2016 expansion into the U.S. market. Robin Tandon, senior product marketing director, Eptica, says that his company is focused on maintaining its service specialization by being “the connective tissue” for integrations with other software to complete the customer-engagement array.
Legacy Systems (Still) Make CRM Platforms the Market Leaders
CRM software is considered the real genesis of the customer engagement evolution. These products, including Microsoft, Oracle, Pegasystems, and Salesforce, are considered market leaders in Gartner’s 2015 research. SAP is poised as a challenger, while SugarCRM and CRMnext are niche offerings.
Originally developed in the 1990s and early 2000s as relational database tools for sales, marketing, and customer service departments to use in lead/contact management, task management, and forecasting, CRM software tracks current and prospective customers’ history of phone and email interactions with a company. Powerful and secure, they launched as on-premises enterprise software or software as a service (SaaS) products in the early days of networked computing, and many have customized applications for specific industries such as healthcare, insurance, nonprofits, as well as B2B and B2C.
Open-source applications like SugarCRM also help companies customize their CRM platforms to unique verticals, processes, or industry requirements. Today, cloud-based options are taking over, helping to smooth out complex deployments between multiple locations. To ensure security, some companies also offer CRM as a managed service.
At one time, CRM platforms were the only thing—and therefore the best thing—on the market for customer engagement. But adoption then, as now, has had its hiccups. One marketing director for a global B2B technology company—who asked not to be identified for this article—recalls offering its sales personnel cash prizes and the opportunity to win a two-year lease on a luxury car just to encourage them to use its new SAP platform when it was launched in 2014. Even so, not everybody jumped aboard. Many found the data-entry process too cumbersome and the learning curve steep. The director, despite his weekly trainings and “bribes,” says that some sales people proudly informed him that they still retained their own, private list of prospects—refusing to input information into the database for fear of “poaching” by other salespeople and micromanagement by their leadership.
From a sales perspective, the knock against these “granddaddies” of the industry is that the very DNA of their algorithms comes from a bygone era when cold calling was the rule and companies were in charge of the messaging and selling process. “The word ‘relationship’ in ‘customer relationship management’ isn’t even that accurate because the software isn’t really about relationships at all,” quips David Meerman Scott, author, The New Rules of Sales and Service. Instead, he says, CRM systems are simply transactional databases used by sales to bubble up reports for management and are “based on hierarchical processes where sales management doesn’t trust salespeople.”
Because of this top-down mindset, legacy CRM systems weren’t built with the salesperson in mind. Nor did they take into consideration this new era in which the customer is in charge of the entire buying process, says Scott. Thanks to their stronghold in this space, however, many of the CRM market leaders have had the wherewithal to acquire or develop systems that better reflect the new customer-driven journey. The array of email automation, call monitoring, and social selling add-ons now available from Salesforce, and SAP’s hybris marketing solution portfolio—which features self-learning algorithms and predictive analytics tools—help to make old-school CRM systems more relevant and particularly effective for large enterprises.
SAP, in fact, has further positioned itself as an end-to-end platform for customer engagement and workforce optimization with the release of its Simplified Front Office product in late 2015, says Volker Hildebrand, global VP of CRM Solutions and SAP hybris.
Social Selling: One-to-One Versus One
Newer customer engagement software products strive to disrupt the industry and embrace the realities of the 21st century customer journey by listening and aggregating every online interaction, mention, and search a customer makes about a company. By focusing on this new age of “social selling,” Lithium Technologies is positioned as a visionary in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant, Nimble and Hubspot are emerging in this sphere as well.
“Our view of the world is that today’s consumers rely on each other for product information,” says Sunil Rajasekar, CTO, Lithium Technologies. “Companies don’t have control of their messaging like they used to.”
Instead, social selling supports customer engagement from within buyers’ social communities, enabling companies to rely on theirs and others’ networks to share content about goods and services. A good social Web customer engagement, Rajasekar says, can drive sales, lower service costs, increase customer satisfaction, and even serve as a “crowdsourcing” platform for new and updated products.
Armed with all this pre-existing information about a customer, sales representatives should never have to speak to a “cold” lead again. They understand buyer context before contact is ever made.
With its roots in customer service, Lithium has gained traction in marketing and sales departments, creating an integrated platform that all customer-facing employees can access—and are encouraged to participate in. Companies that have installed Lithium are using the power and knowledge base of social communities to solve problems, creating a return on investment in cost savings due to call deflection, says Rajasekar. The online “experts” and “superfans,” that respond to posters’ questions and concerns may not even be employees, which adds a layer of credibility, too, he adds.
Rajasekar explains that the C-suite doesn’t need much convincing to implement a social-selling tool like Lithium. “Business leaders know that social media isn’t a fad anymore; it’s where people—including themselves—go for breaking news, to make connections, get help, and of course, to vent and to praise,” he says.
Lithium, however, is not an end-to-end customer engagement platform, and users are often advised to implement it alongside existing systems with which it is integrated, like Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics CRM, for more robust contact management and reporting.
Because the very idea of social selling is more one-to-one than one-to-many, these tools are currently better suited for small- and medium-sized organizations, explains Brian Halligan, CEO, Hubspot. Hubspot, and upstart Nimble, offer programs that not only aggregate a customer’s digital footprint and contact history, but can also instantly assemble small CRM-like databases for relevant, contextual, and customized emails that originate from the individual salesperson’s own email and calendar applications.
“The more digital we get, the more human we become,” says Jon Ferrara, founder, Nimble. The days of marketing departments creating generic email campaigns and impersonal call scripts may soon be as unpopular as the nine to five workday for sales representatives, he notes. With multiple devices by which to make contact, and the customer driving how—and when—that contact is made, sales and service departments venture further into an always-on, always-available, always-personalized business model. To that end, look for new releases of many of these software products to have improved mobile functionality.
“You’re going to have to trust your representatives,” adds Scott. “Give them the power and the tools to do their jobs and you’ll be seeing happier sales staff and much happier customers.”
Regardless of the approach, customer engagement is about forging genuine, ongoing connections with customers throughout an organization’s ecosystem. It spans every department—from sales and marketing, to customer service and support, business intelligence and human resources, to product development and even supply chain management. That means breaking down old silos and blending all aspects of a business into a singular mission that’s truly customer-centric, the industry leaders interviewed for this article agree.
In fact, siloed departments and a disparate vision of customer engagement may have been why the aforementioned IT company’s sales staff was so wary of its new CRM system, explains SAP’s Hildebrand.
“This is a huge opportunity for the CIO to champion an organization’s transformation,” he points out. “Visionary CIOs can lead change for true customer engagement. It has to start with the CEO and filter down to virtually every employee.”
Like never before, the adage ‘the customer is always right’ drives the way businesses do business. SW
Feb2016, Software Magazine