Twenty years ago this month, I started down my evolution from client to consultant. I was a project lead for our company’s customer relationship management (CRM) investment. I recall the work that went into the business case including the financial requirements and business justification. A critical piece of the rational selling the idea to senior management still resonates:

By making this investment, we will have a 360-degree view of the customer and know all every touchpoint they have with our company.

That point defined the next chapter in my career. I went on to lead dozens of customer strategy projects and develop almost as many business cases justifying hundreds of millions of dollars for CRM, sales force automation (SFA), digital, and data transformations. I helping so many organizations translate their business and customer strategy into technology investments and operational capabilities to improve customer engagement and drive sales. 

Yet, in 2023 companies are still implementing the same strategies and technologies to engage customers, and in some cases for the third and fourth time. Now the endeavors include building mobile apps, creating interfaces with smart speakers and wearables, rebuilding websites borrowing from social media and online marketplace trends, and massive data lakes to store all that system-generated customer data. 

Though the tools, methods, and players have evolved, not much has changed from the justification I developed over twenty years ago to use technology to facilitate customer engagement and provide a 360-degree view of the customer.

So, why are we still hacking at that same problem? Why do we dust off old spreadsheets and presentations, update the language, and continue to make these technology investments? One could argue that the customer continues to evolve and we can learn from leading practices. Think about how many times someone pulls case studies from Amazon or Apple to project out what our specific industry could or should look like. 

Another argument may be that we continue to get better over time, learning from our previous projects to further drive customer experience and intimacy. By taking advantage of our investments and team’s skills, we can more quickly implement new technologies and capabilities to understand, if not predict, our customers’ needs. Similar to earlier stated, there is merit in that case, yet it tends to be expensive if not well managed.

The argument I have explored over the last couple of years is that our ROI for these cases has been misplaced. The investments or intentions were not wrong, but we never got to how we will drive the customer experience, build their loyalty, remain competitive, or understand and even predict their patterns. With all due respect for what we knew at the time, most of us were naive about how we get from Point A to Point B using these technologies. Being in the room for the arguments to make these investments, there was a leap of faith that this is the right thing to do for the business blended with a notion of “if you build it, they will come”. 

The means to execute on these investments have historically been through enabling existing processes and workflows, such as processing a customer complaint. The implementation projects were engineered around the status quo operating models and business processes. I can point to thousands of requirements that were inextricably linked to “how it’s done here”. Very few organizations saw these types of projects as a chance to think about how to do things differently and learn more about their customers. 

In taking this approach, data became the by-product of customer interactions. The fields, attributes, and definitions were determined by the application and a label on the screen. Data got locked into proprietary data structures architected by the software provider. Maybe it got piped to a data warehouse. Perhaps system’s customer data became the company’s customer master table. It may have been shared back in a report or dashboard. Possibly a curious marketer would run queries against the data to pick up on trends or create customer segments. Yet, while looking through the technology, these things were secondary and tertiary interests.

When data is viewed as a by-product, we tend to treat it as an interesting afterthought, but not as vital to our business. It becomes a complex cost because at some point we integrate, store, and manage it as something produced by function-specific applications, not as a corporate asset or unique business opportunities. 

Would changing our mindset about why we make technology investments differ if we started to talk about data as an asset and resource to our business? What if we saw technologies and capabilities as a means to learn more about our customers? How might things look differently if we looked at the questions and knowledge gaps we have about our customers, our competitors, and our market and sought to fill in those holes? Then technology becomes a means to make our companies successful.

Have your own thoughts? Post below. Want to talk more about this and explore this with us? Contact us. 

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