Happy New Year, everyone! I'm going to start by apologizing for 2020.
Not for COVID-19. But for not writing as much as I intended or wanted. I love writing and analysis and being opinionated and trying to at least explain existing ground -- if not break new ground. And, while I don't think that my opinion is much more than that, I owe it to myself to put it out there. So, my No. 1 New Year's Resolution is to write a lot more. Since I'm on record as saying I'm going to write more, that will hold me accountable.
Look, I don't know what you all think, but -- even with the vaccine -- we are months to a year away from even the beginning of a "return" to a "new normalcy" to rejigger an old expression. (The expression was "return to normalcy," and it was the campaign slogan of Warren G. Harding, who may have been the second or third worst president in US history.) Even when we get there, it's got to be apparent to every one of us that what we used to see as business as usual is no longer even a memory -- much less a truism or dictate.
To that end, I'm making 2021 the year of a long haul to hope. I'm going to be not only launching a significant number of projects but am going to be looking at the changes and evolution of what customer engagement has to be to meet the standards of the not fully evident new normal. I am going to do is try to define the standards, framework, systems, and practices that will universally stand strong regardless of how the new normal shapes up. I'm going to put enough stakes in the ground to support a large tent.
In this post, I'm outlining some of the topics (with some detail) that I'm going to cover throughout the year on ZDNet and the projects that I'm going to be involved with -- some of which you know, and some you don't but will. That means I will broadly discuss a variety of things in detail throughout the year. Keep in mind these themes will be uneven in their maturity. Some of these are things I've been thinking about for years and how they have changed in the context of COVID-19 and what that portends. Some I'm still wrestling with but have a rudimentary understanding of their importance to the future of engagement. You'll see as you read these. Bear with them. This is the stake-in-the-ground post.
I want to start by highlighting the response I got from a brilliant and dear friend of mine who is a deep thinker, thought leader, and doesn't write enough. His name is Graham Hill (his LinkedIn profile -- you should connect with him.) Aside from all of the above, he is also, shall we say, forthright. Here's what he wrote in response to the list of topics that I threw onto a LinkedIn post to get some feedback.
"Hi Paul, an interesting if rather eclectic list.
All of the items you mention are parts of a bigger (complex adaptive) customer experience system. To-date, nobody has set out how the system as a whole works: How customers are part of a larger ecosystem of actors. How customers have #JTBD (for those of you unacquainted with the acronym -- it stands for Jobs To Be Done). How they interact with others, including but not limited to companies, to get them done. How affective and cognitive decisions lie at the heart of interactions. How interactions can be knitted together into coherent journeys that help customers get their jobs done faster, easier, and better. How journeys can be orchestrated using appropriate technology. How that enables meaningful conversations with customers. How much of that could or should be automated. It is this big picture that you should focus on, not the ephemeral trivia."
I do (and will) have to focus on the larger picture, though the topics below are not ephemeral nor are they trivial. And I think that Graham is 100% right about the complex system of interactions with actors that go well beyond just customers -- and not, as the most simplistic view of the "beyond just customers" conversation goes, just combining employees, companies, and customers. Here is a diagram I did several years ago (actually introduced in 2012, though this is the 2014 version) that reflects what I called then an enterprise value chain and a personal value chain. It's actually a simple (not simplistic) system of engagement:
Note: The large number of named and unnamed "actors" in the play. In fact, it's not just a play either. It's a musical -- more complex, more social (in the general sense of the word), and more "other." You'll be seeing more on this sometime this quarter. Yes, the analogy is apt. And, yes, I miss Broadway.
However, I am not going to focus on a bigger customer experience system because I don't think that what's he is describing exactly. To his point -- we are dealing with how the multiple actors interact with each other and the decisions that lie at the heart of the interactions. If you are not acquainted with my definition of customer engagement (the heart of my last business book -- the last one I wrote and the last business book I will ever write -- The Commonwealth of Self Interest: Business Success through Customer Engagement), it is the following:
"The ongoing interaction between company and customer: offered by the company and chosen by the customer."
Implied in that is Graham's point again: That behavior, intent, and decision are always part of the context of engagement (chosen by the customer), but also, to be clear, there are far more actors in the play than just the company and customer (as the simple diagram implies), and that is exactly what I want to examine and look at in 2021, along with the practices necessary to succeed with those very same customers. While my definition is one that I will stand by for the purposes of setting a stage and giving people who read it something to think about that will start them on their journey to not only a framework but actions that will increase their retention and acquisition of customers, it is just a start. Read the book, and you'll get the idea. Or, don't read the book, and you'll probably get the idea, too. You're smart.
OK, so what am I saying here?
As I said, I agree with Graham, I need to focus on the bigger picture. But notice the not terribly deft way I shifted the focus from a customer experience system to a system of engagement at the meta-level it needs to be examined at. Because that is what I intend to examine. I am a believer in the symbiosis of customer experience and customer engagement, but they are not identical. My definition of customer experience is complex because there is customer experience:
"How a customer feels about a company over time."
And there are customer experiences -- which are modular, consumable, and created. See Joe Pine's The Experience Economy for the seminal work on that (read the edition with the updated preface, which came out in late 2019 on its 20th anniversary). Technologies like Adobe Experience Manager, and to a large degree, Oracle CX, can create those consumable experiences -- which can be monetized -- technologically. But no technology on the planet can create how a customer feels about a company over time. Technology can enable systems. Technology is also dumb and has no ethics and no moral compass. It does what it is told to do -- even AI. So, systems of engagement are systems that enable bidirectional communication. The next phase for systems of engagement will be enabling the facilitation of bidirectional conversations. Again, a teaser for future posts. This is broad -- not deep. Thematic. Not detailed.
So, thank you, Graham, for as always a powerful insight (again, you should connect with him. He's truly one of the smartest thinkers I have ever met), and I will take your counsel with two differences. I'm going to focus on the bigger picture of systems of engagement. And I am going to cover the following seven topics in that context.
There is no question that the world has changed irrevocably. I don't think a single person I know would argue that, and if there is someone I know, bring it. How that all plays out is still to be determined, but certain changes have emerged over the last year, driven by the impact of the pandemic.
I have to lay the foundation for what I'm going to be saying here by hopefully disabusing you of one major "change" that we are hearing about that is actually not the case but is reflected in hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of articles, posts, commentaries, speeches, conversations, which say we are "on a sprint to the finish line for digital transformation." While I will elaborate in the future, I'm going to put one of those stakes in the ground on this: We are not on a sprint to the finish line for digital transformation. We are just using a lot more digital tools. What has happened as a result of that digital tool usage is a significant discussion at companies that are now trying to figure out how to transform their business models and create the cultures necessary to effect and then stabilize actual business transformation -- a much better term for what is happening than digital transformation (something which my brother in the struggle Esteban Kolsky has been saying for years). Here's an interesting statistic from a Salesforce study of businesses in Europe (via TechRadar) that highlights the point:
"82% of respondents say that they have digitally transformed their business as a result of the pandemic, however nearly 60% believe these innovations are only temporary."
Even if that first number is not just business leaders being delusional about where they stand in their business efforts, the second number alone tells you that this is not digital transformation. Business transformation is neither a tactical effort nor a temporary phenomenon. It is a permanent change to the business model, the culture, the engagement model, the ethical model of a company -- not something in place for the duration of a pandemic.
If I were to characterize where we are now, I would say that the vastly accelerated use of digital tools and the benefits that have shown up, as a result, has accelerated the conversation about what would need to be in place to permanently change those various facets (e.g., business, ethical, engagement models, and culture) and to universalize them in a way that doesn't need a crisis to make them work. All that you read from me is assuming, thus, the following:
"We are on a sprint to the starting line for digital transformation."
What that implies for engagement is there is a lot of room for the models to evolve and grow. We are not in some mad rush to the endpoint. There is room to experiment and change and to identify and clarify the framework and methodology for that engagement -- even in the midst of the pandemic. Companies like Thunderhead on the vendor-side are among the companies leading the charge, people like Graham and Esteban Kolsky, on the thought leadership-side are among those leading the charge and, hopefully, I can play a part in that, too.
So here are the seven themes for 2021 and a brief explanation of each...
It's time to start thinking of trashing the old truisms that have governed the engagement world for years (some of which I have been guilty of propagating). Given an implied agreement that the world has changed irrevocably, we need to make changes in practices, approaches, intellectual frameworks, methodologies, definitions, and execution. Let's start with these:
Dancin' in the dark: Participation is interactivity's new normal (if I have anything to say about it)
Despite all the change and the talk about new normal -- or next normal or as Brian Solis calls it in the Novel Economy -- and the massive increase in the use of digital tools and the non-stop chatter about making things "more interactive," one thing that has not changed is interactivity. For example, some companies think (and sadly, many, many of them think this) that they are getting high degrees of interactivity when they get a lot of comments in the comment area of a speech or a live streaming show or however they are broadcasting.
Tell me, though, is this exchange "interactivity?"
Company moderator: "Hey who here thinks that the speaker today is right about the need to transform business models?
Comment 1: Hey John!!
Comment 2: Tom, Whazzup!?
Comment 3: John, Tom, what's up guys?
Comment 4: Hey Margie! What's goin' on.
This goes on with eight people for 135 comments.
CMO: How'd we do?
Moderator: We got 147 comments.
CMO: Great work!
Get the overly obvious point? There is no interaction whatsoever, but the KPI here is the number, not the actual responsiveness. This is a common practice. Here is the metric as described in one article on Social Media KPIs:
Comment conversation rate: This is the ratio of comments per post to the number of your followers. It's better than tracking comments without any context. Because an average of 20 comments per post is quite impressive for only 200 followers.
That says context is the number of comments posted to the number of followers. That's what we're calling "context?" Really? It disregards that the presenter or the hosts may not be communicating with those commenters in any way or are not resonating with the commenters who are carrying on a side conversation. They may not be responsive to those commenters. The hosts are hosting, the presenters are presenting, and the commenters are commenting. As Rudyard Kipling's poem, The Ballad of East and West, says: "Oh, East is East, and West is West and never the twain shall meet."
Another example of what we see that passes for interactivity is when there is a chat window open during a prerecorded speech at a conference and the speaker isn't available during the speech to communicate with the listeners. Or during a live-streamed speech, any time the listeners attempt to start a conversation on something during the topic, the moderators -- rather than encourage the conversation among the other listeners -- just tell the initiator: "Oh we have a session on that tomorrow at 2:30pm ET. Here's a link to register for it." Buzz and conversation kill. This is what more than 90% of the conferences I attended or spoke at do in either instance. Big fail on the part of the conference owners.
But this two-dimensional view of interactivity is what has been the norm pre-pandemic and continues to be the norm during the pandemic. Without going too deeply into it, this 2D interactivity needs to become 4D.
Thus, I'm going to focus on what the new generation of "interactivity" needs to be and that is participation. Think of the Bruce Springsteen video "Dancing in the Dark" -- where, toward the end, he pulls Courtney Cox onto the stage and dances with her. The audience becomes actors. This is something that living theater has done for as long as it has existed -- the audience is part of the play.
For example, when Brent Leary and I live-stream a CRM Playaz episode, and there is a comment stream going on from our audience, we will, when the opportunity presents itself, bring the commenter directly onto the show. Rather than explain in detail here, watch this clip below from our last episode of 2020. The guest was Esteban Kolsky (SAP). The three other guests are Nitin Badjatia (ServiceNow), Dina Apostolou (Contentful), and Alan Berkson (Freshworks) -- all accomplished professionals who were watching and commenting. We pulled them out of the audience and onto the show for one of the funniest exchanges of the entire year.
The practice/act of pulling them on stage so to speak is a good example of where we need to take interactivity. There is much, much more to say about this (and I will be saying it -- including the framework and the practices). How we think about this in the light of engagement and experience has to change, now. Interactivity has to be seen as participation.
Not Kramer v. Kramer, not signal v. noise -- it's now signal v. signal and that's hard
For longer than forever, the industry -- especially marketers -- have been talking about the attention economy and "separating signal from the noise" as what contemporary marketers have to do. The mantra goes: "We are competing for the attention of our potential customers and customers, not only directly with competitors, but with just the sheer volume of activity going on out there." That was usually followed by a statistic that said we are being bombarded with something like (the most accepted, though not necessarily accurate number) 3,000 messages a day. That was in the pre-pandemic era.
I admit that I was one of the people who pushed that, but I have been clean for 12 months now. And I realized as a result of stepping away from all the noise about signal v. noise, even if this had been the case (and it most likely has been) that we are now evolving to something else. And that's not signal v. noise but signal v. signal.
Just because it isn't your signal (meaning your content clearly defining or amplifying a message that is distinguishably yours) doesn't mean it's noise. It could well mean it is someone else's signal. Even if the other signal isn't competitive it can be distracting and yet it is a signal. What?
Signal v. noise has routinely been discussed as no longer competing with just competitive messages but competing with all messages in all the media that cross your path in any given time period for attention. The prevailing idea goes the sheer volume of messages creates fatigue that diminishes a potential customer's ability to distinguish your message. While that is true, that is not the whole story. Pre-pandemic, that was a prevalent issue, but again, even then, not the whole story. Now, with:
This insanely rich availability of the tools makes the creation, distribution, and consumption of content simple. That means, of course, a lot of junk will be produced but so will a lot of high-quality content that has value. It is this latter result that creates the signal v. signal problem that companies vying for customer attention have to deal with regularly.
That happens for a simple reason. During the pandemic, one of the results of having large quantities of available digital time -- in a non-working physical environment means that distraction is now a major concern. There are in a broad sense -- two major forms of distraction that I know each of you reading this is subjected to: First, physical distraction -- think "kids," and second is a digital distraction. Let me put it to you in a way that I am certain will resonate. How many times in the last 10 months have you started to research a business task online and seen a really interesting article that addressed a topic of interest to you that wasn't related to the task that you have -- and you stopped the task and read the piece or watched the video or listened to the audio? About a million times, I would imagine. That's signal v. signal. The information that distracted you was related to an actual area of interest you have and you learned something. But it had little to nothing to do with the task at hand. It is the opposite of dealing with high volumes of noise which is fatiguing. The information of interest is addicting, not fatiguing -- and you lose sight of what you are focused on. Place that in an environment where a potential customer is looking at you and has that exact kind of distraction.
Signal v. signal.
You'll have to wait until later this year to get the real meat here. Right now, I'm just identifying the problem. Heh. Heh.
Citizen as a celebrity; Celebrity as a citizen
One of the more interesting phenomena that emerged at scale during the pandemic was a dramatic closing of the gap between "normal" citizens and celebrities. The pandemic knew nothing of titles or privilege or social media influence. It struck whoever and however. Consequently, we began to see a phenomenon that has existed for a long time but really skyrocketed during the pandemic. We saw ordinary citizens become celebrities and we saw celebrities acting like ordinary citizens -- dropping the pretense of their privileged existence, with the pandemic acting as a great leveler. They went from larger than life to engage with others in life. That led to acts of unexpected kindness from celebrities (see John Krasinski's Some Good News (SGN) as a great example) who were meaningful when it came to impacting those who needed the connection. That said, they used their celebrity as a platform to help others -- which of course is not a platform available to that many. But they took their responsibility to other human beings more seriously -- in part because COVID-19 acts as a leveler.
On the other hand, significant numbers of people who just needed social interaction via digital devices to stay sane and to communicate with others turned out to have noticeable talents that took them from a normal existence to the trappings of stardom. (For a storyline that shows the evolution, check out the rise of this white-collar Utah father and daughter, Mat and Savanna Shaw. Here's their first video singing "The Prayer" at the beginning of the crisis. Here are them now.) I'll be covering what this means, from the sociological/psychological to the cultural impact on how we conduct our activities in the future. There are both lessons to be learned by business and a direct impact it can have on business (see CRM Playaz BYOB 2020). Think "feeling valued," and you'll get the point. The story isn't the celebrity as a citizen or citizen as a celebrity; it's what the pandemic accelerated when it comes to humanization and feeling valued -- both of which are extensively discussed in pretty much everything I've written or said for the past two years. But this "organic" model has some interesting implications to explore. All in the context of the evolution of engagement.
Now for the systems and the technology…
The technology world has changed -- and has been for a long time. The battle for CRM is over. CRM systems are now pretty much a part of almost all significant and many upcoming businesses. The price paid for the near-ubiquity of CRM in the corporate world is that CRM, which I and others had much bigger hopes for, has been "relegated" to becoming the enabler of operations systems for customer-facing departments like sales, service, and marketing. (Many marketers love to debate whether they are part of this) No debate. But you'll do what you want regardless). Given that we now are labeling things CX -- for customer experience or calling it customer engagement -- look at sales and service, and now they are an experience cloud somewhere. Note that marketing isn't included. Look at the name of the larger platforms, and they are either CX (Oracle and SAP) or engagement platforms (Pegasystems and Verint). Honestly, while all of these, to their great credits, is more than just rejiggered names for the same old CRM systems (unfortunately the case with a lot of companies), I think Verint and Pegasystems are closer to aligning the system with the name if you believe that my definitions of customer experience are right. But it's a fight not worth fighting. Rather, we now have to define and then support the evolution of engagement technology systems, what they need to do, what parts need to be enfolded in the whole, and get them to where they have to go, no matter what you call them. This means they have to align with the market
The future of CX/CRM/CE systems? Integration of communications platforms
At Creatio's Accelerate Global conference 2020, I was interviewed on stage and asked what I thought was up next with CRM or CX/CE systems. I said that we were in a period that was similar to when Social CRM became a "thing" – which meant that the next phase for CRM systems at the time was the integration of social media communications platforms (e.g. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and ultimately dozens of others into core CRM applications. The first to truly do that was a solution that CDC's Pivotal offered in 2010 and it was actually called Pivotal Social CRM. For the sake of differentiating between those companies that were either creating those solutions or carrying out that kind of activity and those still stuck in the old mode, we distinguished at the time between social CRM and traditional CRM by calling the products that integrated social channel communications "Social CRM." As of 2013, there was no need to separate the two anymore since everyone was doing it, and for those who were paying attention, social CRM rightfully died as a term and was replaced with just CRM again. That said, some didn't listen. Google "Social CRM." You'll see what I mean. It's used by market research companies to charge fees for research into a market that doesn't actually have any meaning separate from CRM now. But anything for a buck.
We are at a similar stage with communications media and platforms. With the pandemic raging and lockdowns in place and common sense, there is a need to communicate widely dispersed workforces or with customers who are remotely connected. In the midst of necessity, an opportunity arises. The cost-effectiveness, the collaborative possibilities without a physical presence, and for multiple other reasons, created a greenfield opportunity (well, nothing is truly greenfield -- a turquoise field) for the tech companies that produce the comms platforms to work with the business tech companies to integrate their offerings. Take it even further and get beyond sales, marketing, and, especially service for the use cases, see the possibilities when combined with engagement platforms and solutions such as technologies for customer journey orchestration like Thunderhead. Communications with customers direct the integration of CRM and CX/CE systems with those comms platforms, becoming a valuable addition to the customer acquisition and retention toolbox and even something required for outright survival.
The growth of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack, and more specialized-but-important platforms such as, for example, video communications/collaboration platforms (like my current favorite, Kaltura) is indicative of the need. Actions were taken by tech companies:
One corollary system that is now more important than ever is events management systems or apps that enhance the experience of virtual events. I'll be looking at them in some great detail as virtual events or -- as Diginomica's Jon Reed, an expert mega-influencer/analyst in ERP who actually goes well beyond ERP when it comes to his expertise, calls "hybrid" events emerge as to how conferences, user groups, summits, and get-togethers are attended and experienced. There are dozens of platforms out there, ranging from Intrado (a currently popular choice) to Socio to the aforementioned Kaltura to apps like Wonder (formerly known as YoTribe) that reproduces the event hallway experience. Not a trivial thing at all.
This is the first wave and many more will be coming. So, again, a table-setter. I'll tell you all about the silverware being used, the plates, and the food being served this year as the integration of comms platforms, and the rise of as yet unknown players occurs. I don't want to call this a prediction or a forecast of a trend. It's a necessary next step for customer-facing systems.
Chief growth officer: The evolution of sales and marketing alignment and the integration of service and e-commerce.
While most new executive titles are more annoying than they are useful -- their emergence often reflects an alignment with (chief customer officer) or a pandering to things that have changed in the market. For example, the chief revenue officer is a job created with duties that recognized the alignment of sales and marketing and considered that, despite different cadences, sales and marketing needed to have strategically aligned goals that ultimately involved KPIs that had revenue incorporated -- something not new to sales but new to marketing -- and that there was a shared responsibility to achieve those revenue objectives. The recognition of alignment of the two departments as an important component of corporate growth strategies has been steadily increasing for around a decade. Actually, in its earliest incarnations, it was misfocused to the point that both Eloqua and Marketo (when they were independent) would battle over who created the term that they substituted for marketing -- Revenue Performance Management. Horrible messaging and both, thankfully, dropped it a few years after it began. But it was the awkward way of expressing the recognition that marketing and sales objectives and practices needed to be aligned and that rules of engagement needed to be established to make the efforts to achieve those shared objectives practicably.
Now we are seeing the rise of the amorphously named chief growth officer, which is literally the same thing as chief revenue officer really but much more broad in what it implies in its definition. However, what makes it interesting is that it, in combination with the job of chief revenue officer added to the executive team at many companies (usually supplanting if anything a chief sales officer), it's an indicator of the growth of the alignment of sales and marketing and allows for the incorporation of customer service and or ecommerce into the dischargeable duties of the executive who holds the title. That isn't the case at the moment. Currently, it's just interchangeable with CRO, which makes it a redundant title -- and it may stay that way. But its very amorphousness allows future departmental integrations with say, ecommerce or customer service. What does that mean in both intellectual and practical terms? Well, I can't give away all the secrets here.
What I will say is that it is intimately tied to…
Back office as CX: Time to stop thinking only sales, marketing, and customer service drive customer experience/engagement
I wish that I could say that this is obvious to everyone, but it hasn't been, and nothing tells me that it is any more obvious now than it was 15 to 20 years ago when I and others first began to propagate the idea. But I think that at least when it comes to the supply chain, the impact that has on the customer experience and engagement is obvious. Let me ask you a simple question: How do you feel when you don't get a package that you are expecting on time, or you can't get any information via the Post Office or FedEx or DHL or whoever's tracking system because the information hasn't changed one iota in two weeks. It's still "in transit to the next destination." How do you feel when Amazon says your package will be delivered on March 10 and it shows up on March 8? The answers are obvious. The entire business from front to back office, from processes to culture one way or the other impact the customer's experience and/or their ability to engage. We need to get past the thinking that tries to presume that the word customer-facing is equivalent to the only departments that can be customer-centric or customer-engaged. That means some redefinition of how companies approach customer experience and customer engagement, and who is accountable for it. Don't worry we'll flesh that one out.
Transactions and interactions? No. Transactions as a subset of interactions. Ecommerce evolves.
This is one that falls between the technology and the frameworks/methodologies.
For many years, there have been transactions and then there have been interactions. They have been, and for the most part, still are, considered separate things. The transaction was the record of a purchase. The interactions captured were the record of communication. Certain activities were considered "transactional" and used metaphorically to describe mechanical processes that just "took place." Interactions on the other hand have been seen as bidirectional communications between two parties, and considerably more fluid and interpretable than a transaction which "was what it was." Now, with the elevation of ecommerce and the increasingly large part of the population using it for their purchasing -- and for things like research -0 and the realization that there is valuable data in them thar hills, it's time to re-evaluate how we think of transactions. Transactions are not a separate data entity from interactions. They are a subset of interactions. They are records of purchase, for sure, but they are also records of customer behavior that combined with the more typical interaction data can provide valuable insight into who a customer is, what that customer wants, and can help the business to anticipate not just the customer behavior but their intent. A customer journey in the more contemporary sense actually is almost a proof point of transactions as a subset of interactions 00 because one of the interactions tracked in a customer's journey is the participation of the customer in the purchase process and the outcome of their participation however they got there, which either ended in a sale of some kind or not.
I hope that you are ready to weigh in with me because I am going to be hungry for conversation. I'll keep reaching out to you to work all this through with me -- and to do it in multiple ways via multiple formats. I've outlined the themes that I'm asking you to work with me this year. Aside from my own posts, I will welcome guest posts that address these themes including the larger engagement framework discussion. I can't guarantee that all of your requests will be posted but I will do my best.
Welcome to 2021. Let's see what happens.