SDL: “Frictionless” customer experiences can accelerate journey to brand commitment


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Last week I enjoyed attending a dinner and a Customer Experience Executive forum in San Francisco, organized by SDL. The company is doubling down on its CX messaging while continuing to expand an impressive portfolio of digital experience solutions.

Paige O'Neill, SDL CMO
Paige O’Neill, SDL CMO
Paige O’Neill, SDL’s CMO since September 2013, shared some very interesting research about brand commitment. Committed customers spend 1.5x more when they have a deep emotional commitment, but it takes 2-5 years to reach this level of engagement. The challenge is accelerating progress towards this worthy goal in a world where company stakeholders want results NOW.

Paige argues that a “frictionless customer journey” can help move consumers through 8 relationship stages more rapidly, starting with “awareness” and ending with “evangelism.” Just what that means will vary depending on the demographic group. Boomers favor in-person interactions while Gen Xers prefer online and Millennials like social and mobile.

SDL research revealed that “make it feel like a relationship” was the top “customer mandate” — selected by 24% of respondents. Another important set of factors, selected by 12-14% of respondents, included: consistent omni-channel experience, ethical business practices, value for money, best in class, and a relatable brand story.

My comment, as I’ve said a few times elsewhere recently, is that while making things easy/frictionless/effortless (take your pick) is clearly important these days, I’m not convinced that all-digital-all-the-time is the right CX strategy for most companies. Humans are better at creating memorable experiences and developing real relationships.

Said more bluntly, I don’t think companies should build their CX strategy around a caricature of millennials with their heads buried in a smartphone 24×7. Even, which has clearly set the bar for making digital easy, offers Mayday to enable live customer service on the Kindle Fire and now the new Fire smartphone.

Unfortunately, too many companies approach digital experiences as a cost-saving method, especially in customer service. Digital experiences are boring, and the relationship-building power of personal interactions is ignored. Zappos, by contrast, certainly runs a highly efficient digital business. But if you want to speak with a real person, you won’t get rushed off the phone in the name of cost control.

Leaders Matter

Jeofrey Bean and Sean Van Tyne, authors of The Customer Experience Revolution, told the story of Starbucks’ fall from grace and recovery. After growing 20% per year for 15 years, in 2008 Starbucks had its first ever decline in same store sales. Howard Schultz returned to save the day, observing: “We started to lose sight of our customer and our commitment to continually and creatively enhance the Starbucks experience.”

Mark Lancaster, SDL CEO
Mark Lancaster, SDL CEO
There are some interesting parallels with SDL’s history. Founder/CEO Mark Lancaster stepped down in February 2011, but returned to the helm less than two years later when his successor — the former SDL finance chief John Hunter — disappointed investors. One analyst noted: “Although a capable CFO, Hunter never matched the vision and authority of Lancaster.”

Having spent some time chatting with Lancaster over dinner the night before, I think that analyst was right. Lancaster is clearly passionate about leading (not just managing) SDL to a dominant position in the digital CX market. However, as more and more vendors throw their marketing hat in the CX ring, it will be tougher to stand out with a generic CX message. Continued product innovation is critical.

In my view, SDL is one of the key vendors to watch in digital experience technology. But most companies will also need to marry it with contact center solutions, because phone calls aren’t going away any day soon. It will interesting to see if these two industry sectors collide in the future, because otherwise it will be difficult to deliver the frictionless omni-channel experience that everyone says consumers want.

Further reading: SDL pushes for leadership in emerging market for Digital Customer Experience Management solutions

Update 9/17/2014: SDL’s research is available on Slideshare.

Disclosure: SDL paid for my dinner, provided a free pass to the event, and covered my hotel expenses. This post is part of my independent coverage of industry trends and is not meant as an endorsement of SDL or any other company mentioned. SDL has not been a CustomerThink sponsor within the past year.


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