Digital Forbes

Solving the Customer Experience Vs. Engagement Vs. Omnichannel Puzzle

Author

Christine Crandell, Contributor

June 10, 2014

Survey the vast array of vendors claiming to be leaders in customer experience and you might get the impression that vendors have decoded and aligned their operations to customer expectations.  Could all the hand wringing over customer acquisition, churn, and loyalty been blown out of proportion?

In truth, companies look at the market problem they solve exactly as they see their own customers, from the ‘inside-out’.   To each vendor their slice of customer experience is the most important piece.  Yet, this conflicts with the fact that customers want to achieve their target outcomes in a way (read: experience) that is self-defined.    What they expect of vendors is help to achieve those outcomes through content, products, services and expertise.

The debate between customer experience, engagement and recent rise of omni-channel demonstrates just how fragmented this market is.  As technology vendors jockey for position in the market’s ecosystem, the market continues to evolve.   Practitioners and analysts are abandoning the customer experience (CX) label in favor of customer engagement (CE) because, in truth, vendors will never be able to manage or shape a customer’s experience, only customers can.  What vendors do control is how well they meet their customers’ engagement expectations.   “Customers don’t buy customer experience; that is the value they want,” shares Joe Staples, CMO of Interactive Intelligence.

The real opportunity lies in understanding and delivering the engagement expectations of customers.  Ironically, vendors grappling with how to meet these expectations fixate on the actual customer experience.   To customers the only thing that matters is their perceived experience.

There are a myriad of factors holding companies back from effectively engaging customers. The primary inhibitor is their product-centric culture.  The longer companies remain wedded to the belief that value is intrinsic in the product, the harder the road to growth and sales will become. Two other stumbling blocks are data and company legacy.

Data is like a thirsty person adrift on an ocean. Water everywhere with very little to drink.   Sid Banerjee, CEO and co-founder of Clarabridge, an intelligent customer experience management company, believes that organizational silos are the culprit because “if data is siloed, then you have siloed insights.”

Most companies capture and store petabytes of data on their customers but the level of know-how to analyze that data for meaningful, actionable information is nascent.   Mike Burton, vice president of platform and data marketers of Madison Logic, compares the maturity of data analysis skills to “big data is like teenage sex. Everyone says their doing it but very few are; those that are don’t it very well.” Hence, the growing market for robust 360-degree customer profiles fed by internal and external systems.  These profiles will be the new data foundation for all enterprise applications. Analytics that mine these profiles will drive contextually relevant personalization, internal process improvement programs, employee training and everything in-between.

Because of the data problem companies cannot really hear their customers.  Banerjee questions “how can you have a customer led economy without listening to customers before acting?”  To actually listen to customers, companies need to connect the data with conversations. That includes call center phone recordings, social media interactions, structured data in legacy systems as well as interaction data in partner systems.

Clarabridge’s expertise lies in deciphering the meaning and context of words based on an eleven point scale of granularity.  The solution quantifies qualitative data and measures how sentiment and context change over time.  Building an actionable 360-degree profile of the customer requires not only data but deep analysis to understand customer behavior, intent and expectations.    Clarabridge’s solution creates a single, unified view of each customer, though Banerjee is quick to point out that they “provide about 90 percent of the customer view.” The solution is an analytical layer that sits on top of wide range third party products like Medallia, etc.  By pulling the disparate pieces together and delivering context, which listening and sentiment engines cannot do, “gets data in the hands of the right people to do their jobs better and faster.”

The real power of Clarabridge, according to Banerjee, is it “helps companies connect the dots between functions, breakage and how that shows up in customer sentiment. The solution can show brands what operational and strategic changes they can make to move the needle.”

Even with 500 big brand customers and annual growth rate of 65 percent, Clarabridge is not a ‘one-stop’ shop for customer engagement.  Customer engagement technology vendors need to be part of broad ecosystem, which is easier said than done.

Bringing together a diverse group of technology solution providers under a common vision is a long and frustrating process.   Salesforce.com can attest to how each vendor, including themselves, want to be the lead dog to grow their slice of the revenue pie.    That innate focus on selling rather than a helping is so prevalent because companies are bound by their history.  Their origins, founders’ philosophy and cultural values shape and frequently limit their perception of their market opportunity.

An example is the 20+ year old contact (or call) center automation market.  The big gorillas in the market are Genesys, Avaya/Nortel surrounded by  a handful of on-premise/cloud vendors like NICE Systems, Interactive Intelligence and a dense swarm of cloud-based start-ups including Five9, InContact, and LiveOps, to name a few.  Talk to any of these companies and they’ll cite how many agents they support as well as their customer experience positioning.

The contact center sits at the intersection of customer loyalty, service, cross-sales, and product adoption.  It’s easy to see why vendors in this market believe they are the top dogs in the customer experience movement.

Interactive Intelligence recently jumped onto the customer experience bandwagon with Staples declaring at this week’s annual user conference that they can achieve “complete ownership of the Customer Experience category” because, among other reasons, they “feel their great at it.”  All hubris aside, the goal of this company is to own the “contact center expertise space.”

The company is at interesting cross roads as it looks to grow beyond $316 Million in annual revenue.  Traditionally an on-premise software and hardware company, they are in the middle of evolving into a SaaS company.   Not an easy transition to make for a public company.  They’ve publicly committed to continually enhancing their on-premise products as well as releasing a steady stream of enhancements to their cloud solutions.   By actively working with customers to provide choices that support their varying paces of transitioning to cloud solutions, Interactive Intelligence has staved off the natural revenue cannibalization that normally occurs between on-premise and cloud products.  Shrewd forward planning that included a common code base for all products, no debt, and plenty of cash in the bank has helped them maintain momentum in the face of the financial market’s momentary disillusionment with cloud/SaaS companies.

While their messaging is customer-experience-sque, their vision takes cloud contact centers to a new level.  At the user conference the PureCloud Suite offering was introduced, an enterprise-grade multi-tenant communications application services solution with edge devices running on a distributed cloud architecture.  PureCloud and its product roadmap could change the contact center market.

That being said, companies are bound by their history.  It is a stretch for either company to claim leadership in the customer experience space; maybe within the narrow confines of their “slice” of the market but not for the overall market.   Companies need a holistic understanding of their customers’ behavior and engagement expectations, technology vendors need to enable that with broad engagement capabilities across all organizational touch points not just within one or two functional silos.   With the exception of Salesforce, very few technology vendors are able to effectively and profitably build an integrated ecosystem that spans well beyond their traditional users, markets and problems they solve.

What companies need and are looking for in the turbulent sea of customer experience tools and solutions are platforms supported by deep expertise and best practices.  They see customer engagement platforms serving as a catalyst for change.  Delivered with best practices, pre-integrated third-party products, templates, embedded knowledge and just-in-time training, end-to-end customer engagement platforms enable companies to be proactively contextually relevant in real-time which lead to measurable revenue growth.

If Interactive Intelligence wants to lead the customer engagement market they need the depth and breadth in customer intelligence that a vendor like Clarabridge delivers.  The real opportunity for Interactive Intelligence, in my opinion, is to help companies understand and be able to intelligently act on their customers’ behavior by prescriptively empowering employees, not just in the call center, to meet customers’ engagement expectations each and every time across all channels.   To capitalize on that opportunity requires a 360-degree view of the customer, the ability to capture their omni-channel behavior, and deep analytics to interpret intent in actionable ways.  That is Clarabridge’s sweet spot.

I’m not proposing that these two specific companies get married.  I am, however, strongly recommending that customer experience/engagement/omni-channel technology vendors start actively exploring partnerships outside of their traditional markets and ecosystems.  The objective should be to build the next generation engagement platform that transcends functions and silos to enable companies to more quickly and naturally align outward to their buyers.

While customers own their brand experiences, that very ownership is continually changing the Buyer-Seller dynamic which, in turn, is forcing companies to change how they operate.   Companies are increasingly stepping up to the challenge; it’s time that technology vendor follow suit.

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