B2B professionals talk a lot about “customer experience” these days, but few are willing to define it, and fewer are willing to take responsibility for its success.
This despite the recent proliferation of vendors offering some new flavor of customer experience management (CEM or CXM), or some supposed all-in-one tool for converting customers into loyal advocates.
Marketing departments, in particular, seem well-positioned to affect change in this area . . . but how?
To find out, we sat down (not literally) with Bohb Blair, the global CXO of Starcom Worldwide, one of the most widely-known media agencies on the planet that just so happens to focus on building “connected human experiences.” You should also know that the X in Blair’s title stands for “experience.”
Blair’s focus at Starcom is aligning technology, strategy, and design to help buyers connect with brands in a more meaningful, memorable way. Through the years, he has served various design and experience leadership roles at Mindshare, Legacy, Draft Worldwide, and KBA.
What is Customer Experience?
First, Blair emphasizes the all-encompassing nature of customer experience. It’s not just what a customer sees when they walk into a store or visit your website. It’s everything, taken as a whole.
“At Starcom, an essential aspect of our strategic approach takes into account a CX Audit to fully understand all the touchpoints a brand has created, how they are used, and whether they are valued by people,” Blair says. “We also take into account all brand behavior beyond their ‘owned’ channels including CRM, customer service, content, and partnerships. All of this collectively shapes our understanding that drives Experience Design.”
The Forrester definition, since it adds another dimension to our understanding of CX, might be a good resource here: “How customers perceive their interactions with your company.” In other words, customer experience is not only the content and the nature of your interactions with customers (which you control), but how those customers perceive the interactions (which you don’t control).
Traditionally, we might think of CXM as something that belongs to customer service — maybe sales, to an extent. Sell the customer what they need, and make sure they don’t encounter any monumental problems.
But the more buying and selling migrate to digital channels and the more control buyers have over the use of those channels, the more marketing is implicated. That has a lot to do with content, according to Blair.
“Media is the pervasive thing that can connect your brand to people’s context wherever they are, so the content that creates media shapes experience in powerful ways.”
That said, the customer experience isn’t just a passive side-effect of media engagement; it’s a strategy that can translate into measurable bottom-line growth. “When you focus on customer experience, you have to focus on what your brand creates and how it behaves,” Blair says.
“I’m thinking of this recent work we’ve been doing with our partners at Airbnb. We’re working in sync with their product marketing team to make sure what we do is not just in line with, but organically blended with the product experience across website, mobile app, community, and brand publishing ecosystem. Programs like Night At and Love This/Live There demonstrate the power of when these teams work together, and they’ve made a real difference for Airbnb’s profitability.”
Customer Experience in the B2B World
I know what you’re thinking. Customer experience is fine for flash-in-the-pan B2C brands like Airbnb, but what about my tiny, no-name software startup, or my accounting firm, or my lead generation service?
Don’t worry, B2B brands can design an impactful customer experience, too. “You have to put the same rigor, planning, creativity, and resources behind B2B work as you do B2C,” Blair says. “It’s just about applying that planning lens through the motivations of the decision-makers you want to reach, not always seeing people as product/service ‘end-users.’”
This perspective is a breath of fresh air in a marketing economy obsessed with its own products, an industry that sees creativity as creatively self-describing, and marketing as a thinly-veiled sales tool. But of course, it means we have to start addressing our prospects as individual human beings with real challenges and serious goals, and of course, that means we need access to a ton of data and the means to interpret it.
In a way, that’s obvious. The real question, Blair says, is what will you do after you obtain that data and those tools?
“Too often, we skip the strategy step. What do we plan to say to each person? Do we have a personalization plan? Do we have a production strategy and iterative content map to deliver true, 1:1 experiences? What is your plan for those who sign up to hear from you or join your community, versus those who have not opted in?”
Getting Help with CXM
If all of that sounds immensely overwhelming (or financially impossible), the answer is not to ignore CXM. The answer is to seek help.
The agency world is home to thousands of reputable firms that specialize in different aspects of brand promotion and demand generation, and yes, some that focus specifically on experience management (Starcom is a perfect example).
Working with an outside partner or agency is a smart move for several reasons:
- You can focus more on the areas where your marketing is strong. Maybe you have a stellar content team, but lack the momentum and the channel presence to make that content drive business results.
- You can learn from an organization that has more experience delivering positive outcomes. That’s particularly useful if you work under a CEO who is hungry for ROI . . . which is every CEO.
- You gain competitive advantage without draining all of your own resources. For example, you hire an agency to run performance marketing plays, which means you don’t have to implement a new ad tech platform and hire a dedicated specialist to do the same thing.
Most of the bigger agencies out there will be able to accommodate a wide variety of marketing needs that connect to the customer experience. Some, like Starcom, will even help you identify what those needs are.
“We design experiences based on what people want and brands need,” Blair says. “That aperture can be pretty wide. Increasingly, we work within inter-agency teams for our clients, so the experiences we design may encompass multiple disciplines and partners, but we believe our role as brand partners is to strategically plan against the entire breadth of brand potential.”
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Modern buyers are waiting longer and doing more research before they talk to sales, which means marketing owns more of the journey. Even after the handoff, sales interactions are often guided by marketing collateral, and when a lead becomes a customer, their perception is still shaped by the promises made and the tone set early in the relationship.
That adds up to a customer experience heavily informed by marketers. It means if you work hard, you can win big. You can create a brand people love not just because of the product it clothes, but because of the way it makes them feel.
How do you impact the experience for your customers? Share in the comments below.