Six Takeaways for Marketing Executives

"The customer is king." How true these words are—especially now in this age of social media and near-instantaneous communication.

Today's customers are happy to share their opinions about a product or experience with friends, family, and anyone else who might read their posts or tweets. These opinions, good or bad, can spread like wildfire. The customer is in charge—and in response, companies are increasingly focused on what customers want, and on building a relationship with the customer based on interactions at every touch point.

Recently, we teamed with Forbes Insights to ask more than 300 U.S. senior executives from a broad spectrum of industries about the evolving role of marketing and came away with six key takeaways for marketers:

Customers want to feel as though they are being directly spoken to. Building a relationship based on trust requires a dialogue. Leading companies know that a differentiated customer experience is built one customer at a time. Messaging must be relevant—and personalized.

Organizations must engage in social listening to get a closer read on the consumer. Leading organizations diligently take the pulse of the consumer across a variety of platforms, including leading social media networks. To build a customer experience, companies must know what customers like and dislike and develop an understanding of their customers' needs, behaviors, and preferences. To collect, analyze, and act upon this vital information, companies must develop the processes, tools, and infrastructure to handle the high volume of social interactions.

Leading organizations view the customer experience as a continuous process. Every touch point matters in a relationship—and every interaction is an opportunity to strengthen the bond between company and customer. Leading companies focus relentlessly on improving each interaction, with the goal of delivering a customer experience that meets or exceeds expectations every time.

The goal is to extend the relationship beyond a single purchase into a trusted relationship that lasts. To make that happen, companies must manage experiences across all physical and digital touch points, including point of sale, activation or installation, follow-up, and future purchases. Leading marketers work with business units and other partners to gain an understanding of customer preferences and satisfaction in real time, or as close to real time as possible. They know that every experience counts as an opportunity to build trust with the customer.

The marketing function requires full integration with other parts of the organization. As the customer experience increasingly drives growth strategy, leading organizations have moved beyond siloed functions, with marketing working seamlessly with other functions to enable the differentiated customer experience. Sixty-six percent of the companies we surveyed said that collaboration among any aspect of the business that touches the brand is crucial to success.

This is an area where more work is required: Fewer than half of the marketing executives we surveyed said their departments cooperate with finance, IT, or digital. To enable such collaboration, organizations must help marketers see the value in it.

To succeed, companies will have to build trust and strategies across the trinity of mobile, the Internet, and social networks. Mobile and social networks are key to building customer trust and loyalty. At the same time, they operate by a different set of rules than more traditional channels. In particular, customers are wary of a direct sales approach. That calls for a softer sell—and a creative mindset on the part of marketers when it comes to engaging with the customer.

Companies must also respond to another fact of life on social media: the disgruntled customer. Executives are worried about losing control of the conversation; their goal is to resolve customer complaints and turn potentially unhappy customers into promoters. That helps explain why 60 percent of executives say they plan to invest heavily in company or product Web sites and 51 percent say the same about mobile apps.

Analytics will play a key role in building customer relationships. Leading organizations are working hard to know their customers better by analyzing customer patterns and behaviors. That requires an understanding of analytics—and the technical ability to use them to sort through the mountains of data generated in modern commerce.

For that to happen, organizations must marshal a collaborative effort involving marketing, IT, finance, and digital. Here is another area where companies could improve—just 12 percent of executives strongly agree that their organizations are taking full advantage of analytics in building the right relationships with customers.

In today's world, building a differentiated customer experience is a baseline requirement of success. Leading organizations will move beyond that to build lasting relationships based on trust by determining and serving the customers' needs at every touch point. Marketing has an essential role to play in this effort as part of the larger team. By meeting and exceeding expectations, functions that work in concert can help make the customer's reign truly prosperous for their organization.

Woody Driggs is the global advisory customer leader for Ernst & Young LLP. He is a principal in the firm's Advisory Services Performance Improvement Practice and is based in Washington, DC. Tarun Chadha is an executive director in the Advisory Customer Practice of Ernst & Young LLP. He is based in Seattle.

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