On the Scene—Gartner's Customer 360: Let the Customer Be Your Guide

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Through ever-evolving technology, companies have more avenues than ever to reach customers, but strategic communication is the key to engaging them and growing as a business, speakers suggested at Gartner's Customer 360 Conference in San Diego in early September.

To open this year's event, Don Scheibenreif, a vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, urged companies to find new ways to connect with customers as technology becomes more sophisticated. "It won't be long that anything of value that can be connected to the Internet will be connected to the Internet—even something like your chair," Scheibenreif said. He expects that by 2025 connected devices will outnumber humans five to one.

However, Scheibenreif pushed companies to "become more human," instead of mindlessly automating processes using technology, and to use those tools to have valuable, considerate, and ethical conversations with buyers.

Speakers agreed that though the number of ways to reach customers is multiplying, not all of those ways are recommended. Companies can drive customers away by demonstrating that they haven't given much thought to their needs. Mobile app notifications, for example, could be regarded as a nuisance by recipients if not handled with care, according to Van Baker, a vice president and research director at Gartner.

As another example, Baker pointed out that while many customers opt in to allow companies to track their locations to better inform communications, such information is often used incorrectly, as companies fail to take into account contextual relevance. "If I'm delivering the wrong information to you based on where you are, I'm much less likely to engage you than if I send the right information," Baker said.

The act of sending customers messages that don't take into consideration their personal needs, or bombarding them with generic content, will lead to frustration. "If customers are walking through your store and getting offers every 10 feet, they're going to feel like they're being spammed, especially if those are spray-and-pray messages," Baker said. As a result, those users will likely delete the mobile app or unsubscribe, he added.

Fellow Gartner analyst Jenny Sussin agreed. "Just because we can reach someone [a certain] way doesn't mean we should," she said, mentioning that each communication should be just as useful to a customer as it is to the company.

With too much data, companies are in danger of overstepping their bounds and rubbing customers the wrong way. Scheibenreif warned against being intrusive by demonstrating unwelcomed, overly intimate familiarity with customers, emphasizing the fine line between impressing customers with personal messages and coming off as "creepy."

And Sussin posed an example of how it could go wrong: "If I'm flying on your airline, and you know that I like [my coffee] with cream and sugar, that's fine. If I'm on your airline and a flight attendant tells me, 'Hey, your dog Buddy is really cute. Is that a yorkie-poo,' that's not."

Scheibenreif also highlighted the importance of giving people space by respecting their preferences and allowing them to realize their goals at their own convenience. Given the right amount of space, customers might be willing to reveal information that is key to a company's progress.

Since customers appreciate when they are respected, they are also more likely to give back when they are treated well, Scheibenreif stressed. This is important, considering that some customers might have innovative ideas to share. Scheibenreif highlighted Quirky's community Invention platform as an example of customer feedback in action. General Electric is also relying on suggestions from the public, allowing anyone to submit ideas and inventions through its Web site, he added.

Echoing Scheibenreif, Sussin encouraged organizations to "embrace serendipity" and not restrict themselves to a predetermined path. "People will experience things in ways that you could never have anticipated them. Let them." She pointed out that Twitter's hashtag symbol, now widely used to group posts, was not originally conceived by the company but by users who felt it would make it easier to search for content. 

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