Truly listening to customers is such a crucial imperative for loyalty marketers everywhere. But, truly listening won’t do any good for a brand’s customer engagement/customer loyalty efforts without knowing how to respond to those customer voices.

Loyalty360 caught up with Phil Durand, director of customer experience at Confirmit, to talk about this important theme along with others related to customer data and personalization.

What do you think comprises an effective Voice of the Customer program?

Durand: Any program that helps to makes a difference. I define this as the thing needed to keep you ahead of the competition. This can take many forms, but typically involves multiple listening posts, the ability to review both the detail and the bigger picture, and finally, something that supports action (either reinforcing or corrective). It’s not just about the voices–it’s about how you respond to them.

How can personalized stories generate stronger customer engagement?

Durand: Storytelling is a powerful approach. It provides a point of empathy. Something people see and recognize themselves within. It lends the whole thing a credibility. These days, people believe reviews from other people ahead of brochure promises, hence, the success and importance of sites like TripAdvisor. But organizations need to be careful about creating content. Customers can spot the difference and fake customer stories can be a huge turn-off for some.

One person’s aspirational family unit is another’s unrealistic marketing gloss. One person’s Facebook promotion is another’s intrusion. Care is needed. For what it’s worth, my personal bugbear is those detergent adverts where someone films themselves doing the laundry and uploads it onto a social media platform or user community of some sort. Sure, I get that a customer voice carries more weight than a brand promise–but really? Everyone washes their clothes, but only a small number of lunatics put it on Facebook!

What is your advice for brands seeking to leverage customer data/insights to tell better, more compelling stories?

Durand: Know what story you want to tell first, why does it matter? And what do you want to happen next? Then try to find the real customers that illustrate the story. It’s your company and your message–so regardless of how customers behave (target or otherwise), I think it’s important to stay true to yourself. The strongest brands are the ones that customers follow because they want to be part of something–AND the company understands what that thing is. What is it that sets them apart? What makes people want to join in?

Making a brand more accessible by showing how new customers can join in is a delicate matter–and I believe it needs to start with an understanding of what the brand means to people. What is the root of their empathy with the brand, the product, the service? Once you know the story, it’s easier to search for the data that supports it. I believe it is incredibly hard to find a meaningful story within a bunch of data if you look at it cold with no hypothesis.

Can you talk about how you perceive the current state of customer data and, more importantly, how loyalty marketers are leveraging it?

Durand: It is a hugely varied state of affairs, but organizations with the ability to store information in one, central place are still pretty unusual. It’s far more common to find organizations divided and splintered, with pieces of customer data held both in duplicate or isolation almost at random. We often speak with businesses that find data availability is the part letting them down–preventing them from linking things together to their advantage.

Loyalty marketers, in many instances, are forced to do their own thing–build their own databases or continue to make manual adjustments ad infinitum. Sometimes, this is because data privacy rules in each territory force the issue, but just as often, it’s because each part of the business gathers only the data they need for their function. Many of the frontline databases used were not built with corporate needs as a primary concern. For example, most car dealerships use a management system to log their customers. It works well for them, managing marketing communications and promotions, service reminder, for example – but it doesn’t always contain the data the manufacturer’s marketing team need.

It’s the difference between operational and strategic–or local and corporate needs. Both are valid, but the gaps can be huge and loyalty marketers have to work with this. That said, the tools for joining and matching pieces of data keep improving–and many companies now see the limitations of too disparate an approach to data design.

What is being done well in this regard and where do the challenges lie?

Durand: Lots of things are being done, most often under the banner of ‘integration’–linking or joining data sources together. The real challenge is in finding a balance between the organizational impact of industrial efficiency and the desire to win in the marketplace. For many, I think the first provides a limitation on the second. I believe the industrial approach is where most companies are trapped. They have organized themselves around functions and specialties – marketing, sales, new customers, retention, and loyalty, etc.

At each stage, the focus is on efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. This effectively means managing a process–but, critically, not a customer. And, as anyone who’s worked in a factory will tell you, it is incredibly difficult to make changes to a complex process especially once it’s started. But this is how markets are disrupted–new competitors can enter a market if they find a way around adopting the existing process and make their own. Uber, Airbnb–this is what they’ve done and it enables them to play by a different set of rules to all the incumbent players, each of whom has too much invested in infrastructure to make change a viable option. The serious players are those investing in research and development–looking for new ways to serve the customer.

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