The IT Leader’s Guide to a Customer-Centric Digital Strategy

BrandPost By Cindy Waxer
May 19, 2021
IT Leadership

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Credit: istock

Many high-performing sales teams rely on innovative technologies and data-driven insights to deliver personalized customer experiences. But not only is technology constantly changing, the role of selling isn’t limited to just sales reps anymore.

As organizations pivot priorities and shift resources to keep up with ever-changing market conditions or economic disruption, non-sales reps, such as customer service agents, play a pivotal role in the customer lifecycle and can even uncover cross or up-sell opportunities. By accessing information based on a customer’s buying history, for instance, service reps can proactively recommend additional products or services to existing customers.

Success requires that all customer-facing employees have the same access to innovative technology as sales teams themselves. Service teams must also work hand-in-hand with sales teams, sharing detailed information and resources in order to stay one step ahead of both evolving customer expectations and the competition.

Fortunately, the right tools and technologies can help, enabling varying functions across an organization to form a united front in a world that continues to shift to more digital engagements and marketplaces.

The New Customer Mandate

To equip sales and non-sales teams with a technology toolkit for enhancing customer experience, it helps to understand how customer expectations have changed, and how they will continue to evolve. As brick-and-mortar companies pivot to e-commerce, and the contactless economy grows, customers are demanding greater ease and speed in their interactions with all types of businesses.

“Today’s B2B customers expect frictionless experiences with their partners, suppliers and vendors, as we have all become accustomed to companies offering personalized and bespoke experiences at the consumer level,” says David Amaro, senior manager of corporate marketing at Salesforce.

No wonder the top objective for a digital business strategy entails creating better customer experiences (67%), according to IDG’s 2019 Digital Business Survey. At the core of this digital business strategy are transformational technologies that promise to deliver superior customer experiences. These include:

  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platforms to create a shared, 360-degree view of customers

  • Analytics that deliver on-demand access and insights into business performance

  • Intelligence capabilities that help organizations anticipate shifts in customer needs and adapt to market demand

  • Business process automation to minimize costly and time-consuming manual tasks and workflows

  • Enterprise-quality apps that both employees and customers can access and engage with, from anywhere

Actively applying these tools and technologies can radically improve customer experiences and increase business agility in a number of ways. The good news is 76% of IT decision-makers (ITDMs) say their technology budgets will either increase or remain the same over the next 12 months, according to IDG research.

But reaping the greatest possible return on any technology investment requires IT, marketing, sales, service, and finance to help keep on target with revenue goals. Moreover, leadership across the entire organization needs to work in cohesion to gain a full understanding of the customer.

How IT is Improving the Customer Experience

Building this united front begins with understanding how best to interact with customers. Curbside pickup and drive-thru services are now commonplace, while chatbots and self-service portals dominate service channels. No one knows this better than today’s sales representatives.

“Sales teams have had to adapt quickly to a new way of selling,” says Amar Aujla, vice president of product management at Salesforce. “These days, sales activities are more about inside-based selling, not just transactional conversations. As a result, sales teams have to understand a customer’s business and situation.”

Together, these initiatives are reshaping customer expectations and placing unprecedented pressure on organizations to create customer experiences that not only satisfy current needs but support ongoing growth and success.

In fact, according to IDG’s 2019 State of Digital Business Survey research, 63% of ITDMs believe an excellent customer experience (as measured by customer satisfaction scores) is the largest indicator of digital business success.

So what steps are ITDMs taking to cultivate timely and relevant customer experiences? A full quarter of survey respondents say they are employing strategies and tactics such as personalization/contextualization of customer interactions (25%). Consider, for example, how many of today’s top e-commerce giants rely on data-fueled recommendation engines to provide customers with highly customized suggestions based on previous purchases and buying preferences.

Similarly, 24% of respondents depend on the real-time capture of customer feedback to shape customer experiences. For instance, contact center agents with access to feedback gleaned from social media channels can nip emerging negative sentiment in the bud by addressing pain points directly and proactively offering real-time resolutions.

Nevertheless, when considering aspects of the customer experience, there is always room for growth and improvement. Fifty percent (50%) of ITDMs prioritize ongoing communication between the customer and the company, followed by focusing on customer feedback (35%), and assessing the post-sale experience and collecting customer feedback (30%). Research reflects that when a company and its clients’ mindsets are more closely aligned, digital business transformation can be implemented more effectively.

But organizational-wide customer centricity demands the right combination of technology solutions and capabilities. At a minimum, this requires a powerful CRM platform capable of providing employees — across all lines of business — with a unified view of the customer.

“A CRM is essential for customer-facing teams, especially sales, service, marketing, and finance,” says Amaro. “It gives you a single source of truth across all those different functions and customer touchpoints.”

From there, the possibilities are endless as organizations discover the power of intelligent tools, such as self-service portals that connect customers to relevant knowledge articles and artificial intelligence-powered chatbots that proactively recommend next best products or services, based off previous behavior and interests.

Uniting Your Departments Around the Customer

Sales interactions are only one component of a positive customer experience. Today’s service rep is a critical lifeline to millions of customers worldwide. Amidst evolving expectations, customers are increasingly turning to reps to provide fast and accurate answers to questions ranging from when a shipment will arrive to how to review a purchasing order.

Addressing these concerns requires a powerful combination of empathy, interpersonal skills and innovative technologies. In fact, savvy organizations are bolstering their customer service capabilities with a wide variety of tools, including chatbots, instant messaging, and automation. At the same time, technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning are working behind the scenes to drive efficiencies and create better customer experiences.

Together, these technologies are not only helping organizations empower employees, and enhance customer experiences, but they are creating a new model for the future of customer care. Long wait times, ill-informed reps, being routed from one rep to another — are no longer acceptable scenarios if a company wishes to stay competitive. The service center, just like field sales teams, is undergoing major transformations as organizations shift to larger numbers of home-based employees.

But customer-centric sales and service departments aren’t possible if customer data exists in separate silos or systems. In order to keep on target with revenue goals and drive revenue growth, all arms of the company need to work in concert and have a single view of the customer.

After all, says Amaro, “if all employees have access to the same 360-degree view of a customer, that data and context can lead to more personalized interactions, which ultimately helps build the overall relationship.”

Fortunately, a customer-centric approach can act as a bridge that connects data, employees and functions — like account-based marketers, inside sales reps, and contact center agents – by driving alignment and creating greater efficiencies. In fact, according to a Salesforce State of Sales report, 48% of sales operations teams have increased their involvement in cross-functional workstream management for a more collaborative environment.

Technology to the Rescue

The right technology solutions can empower sales, service, marketing and finance teams alike. However, for employees to gain a more comprehensive view of a customer’s journey, all that information, from the initial point of sale to ongoing support, must be stored in a single repository, such as a CRM platform. The result is a comprehensive “big picture” of the foundational elements of the customer lifecycle – information that can help:

  • Sales agents convert prospects into customers by presenting the right solutions, at the right time

  • Marketing professionals pick up on a prospect’s interests and use them to personalize ads and offers

  • Service teams proactively identify and resolve support issues before they become more widespread

  • Finance teams accurately invoice customers and support any revenue model

While a CRM system can aggregate an individual customer’s foundational data to meet organization-wide targets, a dashboard is critical to sharing these insights. For instance, a dashboard can provide a comprehensive view of how many support cases are resolved by highly trained agents compared to self-service tools and chatbots. Armed with this information, an organization can reallocate resources and make informed decisions as to whether it’s wiser to invest more heavily in agent upskilling or artificial intelligence technologies.

Similarly, a “State of the Union” style dashboard can help business leaders get a pulse on the overall performance of a sales team. Key performance indicators like total deals closed, open pipeline, sales rep activity, and top deals are available in real time without having to spend hours aggregating data manually or creating decks.

Meet the Customer-Centric CIO

Building customer centricity with technology investments requires the full participation of sales, service, marketing and finance teams. But IT must also play a prominent role in this effort. For this to happen, “IT needs to change the way it sees its role within the organization and overall business landscape,” says Amaro. “IT leaders need to keep the customer in mind as they develop their strategy, decide on what technology to invest in, and how they implement it. This also means designing or customizing applications and processes that lead to positive customer experiences and outcomes.”

Already, the majority (95%) of CIOs believe their role is expanding beyond traditional IT responsibilities, with customer experience (46%) in the top three areas of expansion. Additional areas include cybersecurity (64%), data privacy/compliance (49%), operations (36%) and business development (36%), according to IDG’s 2020 State of the CIO research.

For many, this recasting of the IT role is long overdue. “There’s long been a stigma that IT is just about rolling out and maintaining technology, software, or systems,” says Amaro. “But today’s IT leaders are innovating by adopting customer-centric strategies. Ultimately, this is empowering them to help employees improve the customer experience, build organizational agility, and become stronger business leaders themselves.”

Further strengthening IT’s prominence is its shared focus with non-IT leaders: when asked which business initiatives will drive the most IT investment in the coming year, improving the customer experience ranked second for both heads of IT and line-of business respondents, according to the State of the CIO research.

“Part of working together with sales and service teams is for IT to make sure it understands the pain points it’s addressing,” says Aujla. “Even making operational improvements, such as redesigning a sales workflow, can impact how a customer interacts with the business.”

Amaro agrees. “IT leaders need to break down line of business silos in order to align and collaborate with sales, service, marketing, and finance leaders. This entails finding out what keeps them up at night, what key performance metrics they’re being held accountable to, and really understanding how technology can help them drive revenue growth for the overall organization.”

Adding up the Advantages

Ensuring all lines of business have the same access to innovative tools and technologies is more than an IT best practice; it’s smart business strategy. Sales, service, marketing, finance, IT — they must all work together, pooling resources and sharing data-driven insights, to meet customers’ evolving expectations. By doing so, organizations stand to reap enormous rewards, from operational efficiencies to bottom-line advantages.

But it takes the right digital strategy and tools to build a loyal customer base. CRM solutions, analytics, intelligence capabilities, automation, mobile apps — they are all innovative technologies that, together, not only provide a big-picture perspective on what’s needed to create positive customer experiences, but also offer a granular look at what’s required to continue to keep customers happy.

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