Engagement Hubs Put Customers at the Center
Gartner defines the new customer engagement hub (CEH) technology as an “architectural framework that ties multiple systems together to optimally engage the customer,” one that allows for personalized, contextual customer engagement, either via a human, artificial agent, or sensors, across all channels.
Ask Caroline Lee, cofounder and marketing director at CocoSign, an electronic signature services provider, however, and she’ll tell you it’s a “personal butler for every customer the moment they walk in your store or visit your site.”
“From a technical standpoint, a CEH is an interface that connects multiple customer-facing frameworks and uses decisioning and integrated artificial intelligence (AI) models to respond to customer events in real time,” she says. “Essentially, a business uses a CEH to offer a more personalized experience to the customer through all interaction channels, leveraging human personnel, sensors, AI, and other mediums.”
And that more customized user encounter can make a big difference, experts agree.
Indeed, CEHs have become increasingly popular for a simple reason: They centralize all customer interactions in a single, simplified customer experience, enabling synchronization across sales, marketing, and other departments to optimally engage patrons.
Put another way, a well-planned and -executed CEH is meant to make your old-fashioned contact center obsolete.
“Companies are shying away from disjointed customer experiences that were once billed as best of breed. The trouble with a business adopting a patchwork of software is that many lack the deep integration and data sharing that’s required to create a remarkable customer experience. Customer hubs, on the other hand, aim to consolidate product information, ordering, and customer preferences as well as communication channels into a unified experience,” explains David Ciccarelli, CEO of Voices, an online marketplace for voice-related services.
Additionally, CEHs replace siloed customer feedback.
“All told, organizations today have dozens to hundreds of these siloed repositories. Customer engagement hubs help matters by supplementing customer data platform (CDP) or customer relationship management (CRM) systems,” says David Singer, vice president of product strategy at Verint Systems, which provides CEH solutions to clients. “While CDPs and CRMs have the customer at the center of their data models, customer engagement hubs have engagements at the center of their data model.”
What’s more, CEHs enable companies’ core infrastructure and units to align capabilities, public-facing services, back-office operations, and overall business data and intelligence.
But make no mistake: the bottom line on CEHs, insiders concur, is the bottom line, which is dependent on clientele happiness. Recent research by Salesforce found that three-quarters of customers expect consistent interactions across departments, yet 54 percent of respondents say sales, service, and marketing don’t seem to share information; also, 83 percent of customers now expect immediate engagement when they contact businesses.
“Customer engagement hubs help fulfill today’s increased demand from customers for more personalized, seamless experiences. They don’t want to interact with a faceless, soulless entity. Further, they want to switch between channels for their purchase journeys, from offline to online, for example,” Lee insists. “Hubs enable organizations to make a bigger marketing impact, thus inducing more sales, increasing retention, and boosting loyalty.”
Bobby Marhamat, CEO of Raydiant Screen Signage, seconds those sentiments.
“Your customers should always be the No. 1 priority for your business. When they’re happy, they remain loyal, write complimentary reviews, tell their friends, and serve as cheerleaders for your business. When they are not happy, you can expect the opposite,” Marhamat says. “Especially in the age of social media and review platforms like Yelp, G2, and Capterra, businesses know that now more than ever it is critical to invest in customer satisfaction.”
These are among the reasons why 88 percent of executives recently surveyed by Verint anticipate investing in a high or moderate degree of cloud-based customer engagement and experience solutions, including CEHs.
HOW CUSTOMER ENGAGEMENT HUBS FIT IN WITH YOUR SYSTEMS
Lee believes it’s best to see CEHs as an extension of existing customer-centric processes, like sales and customer care. They do not typically replace internal processes, although some CEH suites might require a heavy restructuring internally. By adopting an open-garden approach, the CEH can be implemented on top of existing systems.
“A hub is rarely a single system. Rather, it’s an architecture, an elegant strategy for pulling together normally disconnected data to create a holistic view of a customer’s relationship, activity, and interactions with the business,” explains Jon Picoult, founder and principal of Watermark Consulting.
Also, CEHs are designed to provide a better user experience.
“Replacing legacy technology, such as a telecom’s billing system, an HMO’s claims system, or a manufacturer’s [enterprise resource planning] system, is often a nonstarter because it requires reengineering the business,” cautions Ted Haugland, senior practice director of CX delivery at Eventus Solutions Group, a consulting and managed services firm. “Most companies make their existing systems interact with engagement hubs instead.”
Of course, some companies can benefit more from a CEH than others.
“Companies that need a customer engagement hub are those engaging with clients via multiple interaction modalities and myriad experience journeys but realize they have no way to link the two,” Singer suggests. “Having data is easy; using data is hard. Organizations need to pivot their decision-making from analytics to insight to action.”
Typically, good CEH aspirants include organizations that are just beginning longer-term transformations and supplementing or replacing legacy core technologies as part of their journeys, as well as young organizations or startups that can incrementally fold in and scale technologies.
“For larger legacy organizations faced with the challenge of siloed business units that have implemented technologies in a vacuum over extended periods, getting started with a customer engagement hub helps them turn their greatest challenge into their greatest asset,” says Taylor Regan, director of experience strategy and design at SPR, a user experience strategy and design firm.
“Customer engagement hubs enable organizations to flip their siloed business units and create a new enterprise built on core technologies across the breadth of their business. At the top of it all, they can then crown everything with connected customer experiences enabled by the technologies that span all interaction points across their business and brand. In this way, once fragmented, siloed customer experiences held together by a patchwork of technologies ultimately synchronize into a sophisticated customer engagement hub,” he continues.
Hubs also come in handy for organizations with which customers might have multidimensional engagement across business lines, product categories, or interaction channels.
“A hub can provide a single, holistic view of the customer’s relationship and activity with the firm, cutting across all of those dimensions,” Picoult notes.
Haugland also sees opportunities for companies that have data and tools that don’t work well for selling, servicing, or marketing; businesses that have recently experienced a merger or acquisition; and enterprises that are introducing a new group/segment.
“I believe non-B2Bs, as well as medium- to large-size businesses that sell products or services to customers directly, can most benefit from CEHs,” Lee says. “Small businesses typically already do a good enough job of personally engaging customers. Their small, intimate nature is a big advantage. Bigger companies, on the other hand, are often heavily segmented, both externally and internally. This makes it harder for them to seamlessly engage with a customer across all of their channels.”
PLUSSES AND MINUSES OF CUSTOMER ENGAGEMENT HUBS
As with any technology, CEHs have their advantages and disadvantages. Smart organizations tend to invest in these solutions when the pros outweigh the cons after performing a cost-benefit analysis.
“The major plus is that these hubs create a foundation for delivering a better, more informed customer experience. That allows sales, service, and marketing reps to be more effective in their roles by having clear visibility into a customer’s entire relationship with the business,” Picoult says. “Customers, in turn, are more likely to feel understood and appreciated by the business because, rather than being treated like an isolated revenue source in disconnected profit centers, they’re engaged by the company on a more holistic basis, in a manner that’s cognizant of the broad relationship the customer might have with the organization.”
Eric MacKenzie, digital customer experience leader for Capgemini North America, notes that CEHs provide a small set of marketer-friendly tools for a large number of tasks, “which can simplify and streamline the process today to create effective customer experiences, increase loyalty, and ultimately raise revenue for the company. Also, you can move quickly to identify a segment of customers and implement a communication journey within days or weeks instead of months.”
Ciccarelli further points out that CEHs are easier to maintain than siloed engagement platforms and call centers, “as it is likely managed by a single vendor, and it can improve data richness because data is consolidated into a single system.”
Hubs also have their drawbacks. Among them is the time involved to transition, increased reliance on a few software vendors, and the unlikely ability to support new startups with the most innovative approaches.
“Implementing a customer engagement hub takes time and effort, and often expectations are not set correctly at the onset,” MacKenzie says. “On the customer end, for an engagement hub to be most effective, it requires a continuous loop of data from a handful of key sources, so that needs to be implemented properly and teams need to be in sync.”
Picoult cautions that one of the most challenging aspects is navigating organizational fiefdoms and overcoming political sensitivities to get disparate business units to collaborate in the design and evolution of their CEHs.
“A hub transforms how you think about and do business. It involves replacing or integrating with outdated applications and systems designed to provide solutions on their own,” Haugland says. “It can also lead to turf battles and other internal conflicts over what systems should do and how they should interact. These will need to be resolved by working across the enterprise. And board-level approval is key, too.”
But most often, the biggest barrier to implementation is the price tag. Hub-related expenses include hardware, software, licenses, subscription fees, integration outlays, employee training costs, and operational and maintenance expenditures—all of which can come in at tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
HOW YOUR COMPANY CAN JOIN THE CUSTOMER ENGAGEMENT HUB CLUB
Ready to explore CEH solutions for your organization? Some serious due diligence is required first. Lee espouses the following 10-point plan:
- Analyze existing customer journeys and find inefficiencies companywide.
- Identify business and IT improvements collectively.
- Create an organization-wide budget.
- Collaborate with all departments.
- Evaluate existing customer engagement technologies.
- Find convergence points.
- Plan for integration.
- Take disruptions into account.
- Assess and improve.
Andrew Paolino, cofounder and executive vice president of North American enterprise service management strategy at Highmetric, an enterprise software sales and services firm, says the key to success is speed.
“The first step is to get a system up quickly, with a minimum viable amount of services available, and then engage the marketing department to drive users and customers to the new CEH,” he says. “In today’s age, speed is of paramount importance; lack of agility allows your competitors to outshine you, and you’re subject to lost market share.”
A good starting point is the creation of a consolidated customer database, experts maintain.
“After all, before you can tie various products and interactions to a single customer, the enterprise has to have a way of identifying unique customers across multiple business units,” Picoult advises.
And then the experts recommend getting buy-in and solid backing from leadership, too.
“Change cannot happen in a vacuum. You’ll need appointed leaders to oversee and champion the change with the support of the executive team, shareholders, and the board,” Regan says.
Particularly important is to establish some kind of enterprise IT architectural function, such as a governing body that works closely with individual business units to ensure that systems and data structures are being built in a way that facilitates current and/or future efforts for customer data aggregation, Picoult adds.
When it’s time to investigate vendors, shop around carefully. Here are some of the major players in the CEH solution provider space:
- DXC Technology
- Espire Infolabs
- Red Hat
- RedPoint Global
Lastly, experts suggest taking an iterative approach to improve digital service offerings.
“Consider releasing new functionality to the hub monthly or quarterly and continue to engage marketing to ensure users are pushed in all ways possible to the new hub,” Paolino continues.
Additionally, “consider leveraging your hub to engage with users by using it to disseminate content about your products and services,” he says. “Sure, the hub should primarily be about providing a customer service function back out to the client. But tied with communication, the hub will become an indispensable channel for customer engagement, which will then lower costs to deliver and support future service offerings.”
Erik J. Martin is a Chicago-area-based freelance writer and public relations expert whose articles have been featured in AARP The Magazine, Reader’s Digest, The Costco Connection, and other publications. He often writes on topics related to real estate, business, technology, healthcare, insurance, and entertainment. He also publishes several blogs, including martinspiration.com and cineversegroup.com.
Real-World Customer Engagement Hub Successes
Large and small organizations alike have successfully implemented customer engagement hubs in recent years, providing textbook examples that can inspire others.
“Tesla, for example, has done a great job with its customer hub,” notes David Ciccarelli, CEO of Voices. “As a customer, I have access to vehicle information, the ability to book service appointments, order products, and engage with customer service and support. Plus, by visiting the community online, I can engage with other Tesla owners and get questions answered, which is especially useful during times that fall outside of regular business hours.”
Highmetric’s cofounder and executive vice president, Andrew Paolino, worked with a global entertainment group to build a CEH for its new streaming channel. The results exceeded expectations:
“Pressure on customer support was intense. We partnered with ServiceNow to deploy a customer service management system to handle the deluge of requests with finesse, managing over 300,000 chat interactions, 100,000 emails, and 80,000 phone calls in one day alone,” Paolino recalls. “As the year has progressed, the company’s subscriber count has surpassed 100 million; yet the portal-based engagement hub we deployed still manages to handle this load. Further, because of the technology decisions that were made, the platform can be iterated upon over time and scaled out to multiple additional global markets with tailored functionality.”
Tarun Vaid, lead analyst for Information Services Group (ISG), a global technology research and advisory firm, points to a digital bank in Asia that was able to provide a wide range of services to more than 300 million customers after implementing a CEH.
“Ranging from credit cards to e-commerce, the bank can now offer mobile ability throughout the full customer financial journey, including shopping, paying bills, making investments, and saving as well as offering related services, such as insurance, through robust and scalable capabilities,” Vaid says. “In addition, the bank was able to partner and collaborate with a wide range of financial and non-financial partners to offer various services.”
Today, that bank has the fastest rate of credit card activation in its region, and total electronic payments grew nearly 50 percent by value and more than 60 percent by volume in the first year, Vaid adds. —E.J.M.