Gartner's Customer 360 Summit 2015: Customer Input Is Central to Growth

SAN DIEGO — Speakers stressed the importance of strategically communicating with customers, and thereby gaining the kinds of insights that will allow them to deliver more engaging digital experiences, on day one of Gartner's Customer 360 conference on Wednesday.

In his opening keynote, Don Scheibenreif, a vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, highlighted the many opportunities for growth in a world in which smart devices will soon outnumber people five to one. As objects begin to interact with each other more frequently, companies will have to effectively gauge the customer's needs and act on the information they offer up. Digital business, which will be driven by customer engagement, "is about people, business, and things," Scheibenreif maintained. Instead of relying solely on technology to solve customer problems, and eliminating the need for humans, companies should "become more human," he recommended. "The purpose of technology is to help people realize their dreams, and achieve what they want to achieve," he said. "Don't ask [customers what they want]—observe," he said. He also suggested embracing serendipity, as it can lead to interesting developments that were not in the original plans.

Scheibenreif outlined four principles of customer-centric engagement that businesses should adopt to stay relevant in today's competitive landscape. First, companies should exercise active engagement: making conscious efforts to communicate with customers on an ongoing basis. This type of interaction is important because, increasingly, ideas come from unexpected places, he points out, and such engagement helps to generate them. Second, companies should engage customers on an emotional level, winning them over through thoughtful gestures that keep the company top of mind. "People that have an emotional bond [with a company] tend to complain less, compliment more, and buy more," Scheibenreif said. Third, businesses need to practice rational engagement: teaching the customers something of value that they will appreciate. And the fourth principle: Businesses must do all of this in an ethical manner and be transparent about their intentions and purpose.  

Scheibenreif described a scenario in which devices and personnel could work together to anticipate potential problems and solve them for a customer, requiring little action on the customer’s part. For instance, if a businessman on a tight schedule experiences a delayed flight, and every aspect of his schedule changes as a result, smart devices could potentially work together to ensure that his reservations and obligations are met. Nevertheless, Scheibenreif conceded that there is a point at which having unlimited access to customer information can get "creepy," and companies should be mindful of not overstepping that boundary. "Give people space," Scheibenreif said.  

Speaking to this notion, Van Baker, a vice president and research director at Gartner, pointed out that companies have to be considerate when they engage customers on mobile devices. In a presentation on mobile consumer apps, he highlighted the many ways companies can aggravate people by targeting them with irrelevant information at the wrong time. Though a strength of mobile applications is that they can utilize geolocation capabilities—and most people allow themselves to be tracked in this manner—companies must not abuse it. If a customer is moving through a store and receives one generic offer after another, she might grow to resent it and delete the app. To keep customers engaged, he pointed out, companies must be very conscious of the kinds of messages they are sending, and when they are sending them.

Jenny Sussin, a research director at Gartner, agreed. "Just because we can reach someone [a certain] way doesn't mean we should,” Sussin said. Communications should be as beneficial to the customer as they are for the company.

Sussin encouraged companies to grant customers more input in shaping products and services. "People do things with your technology that you never imagined that they would do," Sussin said. "People will experience things in ways that you could never have anticipated them. Let them." This can lead to interesting developments. For example, the hashtag, though popularized by Twitter, was not conceived by the social media platform itself but by a user who thought that marking the content in such a way would make it easier to find on the site. Similarly, companies should design experiences loosely so that can be reshaped by the customers in interesting and innovative ways.  

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