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Digital customer experience: Beyond the website

Organisations are faced with the challenge of delivering their customers with an online experience that goes far beyond just a website

Organisations are faced with the challenge of delivering their customers with an online experience that goes far beyond just a website.

At one time, the internet appeared to offer all organisations a simple proposition: email connectivity and a clickable presence in the form of a website. Today, multiple messaging options have blossomed in addition to the universal acceptance of email, and web presence has rapidly evolved with interactive content and the ability to deliver transactional experiences – or e-commerce.

As the web experience has grown, one of its biggest bugbears is content – who owns, creates and edits it; how different media are managed; and how that media will play on the multiplicity of platforms customers have at their disposal.

Over the web’s 20 years, the use of development tools has long since moved on from hypertext markup language editors and visualisers to the need for a complete suite of capabilities and management platforms.

There still remain some organisational challenges to get to grips with.

Influence and control has shifted from technical, skilled IT departments, through the business groups that have typically exploited the web presence, to the user or customer. While the customer wants to interact with a unified customer experience, behind it there will be a mixed bag of separate components, each with a particular application focus.

This is beginning to change and cloud-based unified platforms are emerging to offer the complete digital customer experience, often through acquisition – which is where Oracle, IBM, Salesforce and SDL have all been especially busy. However, some of these unified offerings still give away their individual heritage by having greater emphasis in one specific area or revealing internal inconsistencies. So how does an organisation decide what it needs?

The first thing is to identify the main aspects that form the digital customer experience, see where these intersect most closely with the underlying organisational strategy and then investigate what sort of tools might match those needs.

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Content and digital assets

Content is a primary driver. Even the simplest websites can struggle with it, and so they should all be built on a solid web content management foundation. Good‑quality and relevant content is fundamental for the customer experience to be interesting, efficient and ultimately productive.

Managing content effectively is vital not only for customer experience, but also to ensure content is suitably protected, accurate and meets compliance regulations. Web content management has to combine both the capabilities of data and workflow management with the specific needs of web structures, models and applications, as well as being able to adapt content for a diverse range of viewing platforms.

Many suppliers have a rich content management legacy – OpenText pre-dates the popularisation of the internet, while HP’s Autonomy offers a robust approach to deal with governance issues alongside multiple sources and large volumes of content. Others, such as IBM, focus on balancing ease of content creation by non-technical content developers with the need for IT to retain control.

Beyond straightforward web content, there are other digital assets – images, audio and video – that will require more sophisticated management. This is not only a matter of data volumes, but also requires an understanding of formats, and how these might differ and need to be transcoded or adapted. This is where companies with a rich media heritage, such as Adobe, or a strong understanding of how to get the best out of output media no matter what the platform, such as Sitecore, can play a strong role.

Transactions

Content needs to convey more than just information, it needs to encourage action and, more to the point, financial transactions. But e-commerce is no longer simply the ability to take payments online. A truly multi-channel experience incorporates the physical world of bricks as well as digital clicks. This means full integration between initial engagement, order placement, stock control and logistics, many of which may be separate systems.

This often means the established software giants such as Oracle and IBM have plenty to offer, as they have a track record of back‑end systems over many years. This goes for more recent powerhouses in consumer retail as well, such as eBay with eBay Enterprise. But these options may lack fully integrated front‑end customer relationship management systems. The highly interactive and global nature of digitally enhanced commerce opens up opportunities for those with wide international commerce expertise, such as Digital River, and multi-channel offerings including those from NetSuite, Demandware, SAP company hybris, and Intershop.

Tailoring to the needs of the customer

Even the best transactional systems need marketing pull, enticing offers and demand creation. Not only can this be automated, its results can be tested more directly, closing the loop. However, people also play an important role through social media – although there is evidence emerging that this might not be living up to its earlier hype. According to Capgemini’s latest Digital Shopper research, social media dropped in importance in the customer journey between 2012 and 2014.

One reason for this could be the rapid expansion of paid amplification, with recommendations moving on from being simply a collection of customer experiences to a business in their own right. Many organisations and industry sectors derive a great deal of value from recommendations, so many will be investing in platforms from sector leaders Outbrain and Taboola, or recent entrants such as Contextly and Gravity to generate vital page views.

The community experience does still play a valid role, but even more important is the one‑to‑one relationship between seller and buyer. Getting this right is becoming paramount, as even supermarket giants can no longer rely on old shopping habits and loyalty. Offers must increasingly be personalised to the customer and the journey they are undertaking.

This means building a deeper understanding of customer needs, including the context of the moment of interaction – what device they are using, time of day and location – as well as who they are and a track record of previous experiences. This requires systems that capture the information and are able to take instant decisions to deliver offers tailored to what customers need.

Many systems still base a lot of their personalisation on history – clicks, ads viewed and so on – but this can be a little too simplistic and miss out on what customers are really looking for. Sophisticated analytics are required, which offer more complete insights into customers, as well as how the system and services that surround their journey responds. For example, tools like Telerik’s Sitefinity integrate customer relationship, web content and marketing automation to encourage closer understanding of customer behaviours and optimisation of the offer to them.

A unified and strategic approach

The impact of the digital experience is so significant that organisations cannot ignore it, nor confine it to an area for special projects. It needs to be an integral part of any customer strategy. There are several key areas to focus on:

  • Customer
    Understand who they are and what their needs are at every stage along the journey. Seamlessly offer all channels of interaction that may be required, never assume the journey will be simple or linear, but always ensure that from the customer’s perspective it is consistent. Track and respond to their behaviour in real time.
  • Content
    Empower those who best understand its relevance to the business, unify diverse sources and manage based on an understanding that scale is critical. Increasingly rich media is becoming important to retaining customer interest, but it brings challenges to be effective and efficiently delivered.
  • Context
    Go beyond simple tailoring to the individual and pick up the context that surrounds them. The information is available, but needs to be harvested and aggregated so that smart decisions can be taken automatically to align more closely with customer needs.
  • Integration
    Processes are critical, so ensure that both people and systems are properly integrated. People need to collaborate seamlessly between roles as customers belong to no single department. Systems that may have grown up in discrete silos now need to share data and intelligence. This will require a careful analysis of the diverse ecosystems of suppliers to see where partnerships are really adding value.

Online interaction and communications may have changed many things, but certain underlying key principles remain – the experience is all about the customer, the offer and the journey they have in finding, engaging and transacting with the supplier. These principles have to be placed ahead of internal agendas and the capabilities of existing systems when trying to embark on the challenge of improving the digital customer experience.

In many cases, fully integrated systems will make the task simpler, but even the best tools only support a strategy, and if the strategy and processes are fragmented, the customer experience will be poor. It’s better to build the right attitudes in people and integrated processes first, and then bring in the technology.


Rob Bamforth is a principal analyst at Quocirca.

This was last published in May 2015

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