During COVID-19, customer experience (CX) is eating marketing’s lunch.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn on April 17, 2020.

(and Stealing Its Milk Money While Smashing Its Glasses)

COVID-19 has brought many things that were previously fuzzy into sharp focus. For example, the employee experience matters more than anything else in business. Leadership is different (and more important) than management. And (one of my personal favorites) talking to people is more important than processes, policies, and plans.

But when it comes to B2B tech marketing, one revelation trumps all others. Customer Experience (CX) is on the way in and traditional, metrics-dominated marketing is on the way out. Let me explain by starting with CX and then circling back to marketing.

What Is Customer Experience?

First, here is my definition of CX: Customer Experience is a strategy for building emotional connections with customers during all the significant moments and interactions with your business. Now, of course, that definition is going to raise a few nuanced questions. For example, what kind of emotional connections? Also, what types of moments and interactions, and what makes them significant? And then there are probably all kinds of questions about how to operationalize CX.

I’ll hit the basics here and then tie CX back to COVID-19. 

First of all, CX is about creating a vision, shared by the entire company, for the value that must be generated for customers. For example, Disney (one of the world’s leaders in CX, both in terms of living it and teaching it) has a very simple CX vision statement: We Create Happiness. So your CX vision is bigger than parochial notions of brand. Paradoxically, it’s also much more actionable than brand. Every single employee in a Disney company is trained on how they can create happiness from their unique seat in the business — whether they are a park cast member, a data engineer, or a call-center professional.

The execution of the CX vision is a shared responsibility among the major pillars of the business. Our model at The Starr Conspiracy is to look at the:

  • Employee experience (the experience that customers are having with your employees — not the employee experience category in Work Tech)
  • Brand experience
  • Marketing experience
  • Sales experience
  • Product (or service) experience
  • Support experience 

Every interaction that customers have with these different pillars of your business is significant and must be optimized to build positive emotional connections. This is where marketing, in a silo, fails. It’s also where “customer success” — when viewed as a substitute for CX — fails. Both models are simply trying to place the center of customer attraction within a single business function (marketing vs. support) whereas CX acknowledges that creating strong emotional connections and relationships is a distributed function requiring the participation of everyone in the company.

Here are some real-life examples from the current era of COVID-19.

No CX Strategy

I talk to multiple Work Technology vendors every single day about their response to coronavirus. In many cases, the companies that I speak with are rapidly spinning up marketing campaigns to offer their support while tempering their sales-forward strategies and messages so they don’t come across as tone-deaf during this unprecedented moment (at least in our lifetime) of human suffering. Many empathetic marketing attempts (even when genuine) have been lampooned by satirists pointing out that the flood of neatly packaged sentimentality is having an opposite impact than what may have been intended.

So here is what many companies look like with no CX strategy during COVID-19:

  • Employee Experience  Employees don’t know what their specific role is in delivering on the Customer Experience, so they either keep doing things the way they’ve always done them, or they panic and experiment with their own adaptations.
  • Brand Experience  Wholesale changes to the brand that threaten to undermine the durable message and position of the company in an attempt to line up behind a 100% COVID-19-driven strategy. Think, for example, of all the tech companies that abandoned their core positions to jump into the work-at-home (WAH) market. What happens when that market shrinks in the next few months (because it will) and everyone has come to narrowly interpret your brand as a WAH company? Do you really think everyone is permanently working at home from now on?
  • Marketing Experience  Most people are getting this part right, with a few fumbles here and there (as highlighted above). But that’s part and parcel of the problem. Many people think they can respond to COVID-19 exclusively from the marketing function.
  • Sales Experience  But then we get to the sales experience and sales teams either decide their hands are tied completely (and so they stop talking to prospects) or they keep up with business as usual (e.g., automated sales cadences, demo requests, hardcore LinkedIn outreach, etc.), resulting in unsalvageable customer experiences.
  • Product Experience  I’ve seen some good work here, such as companies offering free products that can help with the current situation we find ourselves in. But I’ve also seen companies get completely off track by changing their road maps, shuffling their backlogs, and navigating their product in a new direction (and when they finally reach that new destination, the zeitgeist will undoubtedly have changed).
  • Support Experience  I’m not just talking about your customer service function here (though that’s part of it). I’m talking about all the business functions that support your primary lines of business. When marketing says, “We’re all in this together,” and accounting says, “You’re one day late paying your bill so we’re shutting your ass down,” you can sense there is no holistic approach to CX.

Common Contradictions That Point to No CX

  • Marketing says, “We’re here to help.” Sales says, “I need to hit my sales quota. Can we jump on the phone and talk about what it’s going to take to close this deal?”
  • Brand says, “We care about people.” Finance says, “We need to cut as much headcount as possible.”
  • Product says, “Our product is absolutely not impacted by COVID-19.” Support says, “Due to unusually high call volume …”

Solid CX Strategy

Companies with a solid CX strategy are rallying and even succeeding during these terrible times. Their efforts may or may not be showing up in the short-term metrics (more on that later), but they are building up so much goodwill, brand recognition, and early favorite vendor status that regardless of whether they are hitting their revenue targets today, they are going to slingshot right out of this downturn once everything gets right (just like companies did post-9/11 and after the Global Financial Crisis). 

One of our clients (Company X) has a very sharp CX vision. “We help recognize and appreciate everyday heroes.” Boom. That’s pretty great, isn’t it? So here’s what they look like in the COVID-19 maelstrom:

  • Employee Experience  They are recognizing and appreciating their employees and every employee knows how they can help their customers do the same, regardless of the position they occupy in the company.
  • Brand Experience  They didn’t have to change a thing. Their brand was relevant before, is relevant now, and will be relevant in the post-COVID-19 world. Good brands don’t need to adjust in times like these. People are smart enough to see how the brand still applies. And by the way, most Work Tech companies don’t need to change their core brand elements because COVID-19 is turning up the spotlight on their intrinsic value.
  • Marketing Experience  Yes, this company adjusted their marketing campaigns to address the pandemic. But they also did so without changing their core message. They utilized campaign-level messaging to tie their brand to the zeitgeist rather than drifting from their core messaging. Helping companies recognize and appreciate everyday heroes is not a message that needs to be changed. The campaign execution just needs to become more nuanced and specific. And that’s what they did.
  • Sales Experience  Their sales team didn’t freeze up and they didn’t panic by changing their whole strategy. They stayed true to their CX. So they kept contacting their prospects with an offer to share strategies for employee recognition and appreciation that are working for other companies during times like these. They weren’t focused on conversion metrics; they were focused on delivering against their CX vision. And guess what. People were grateful for these conversations and, yes, a significant number of them turned into sales opportunities — but not in a gross way — which showed up in the metrics. 
  • Product Experience  They made one of their recognition products free for all. And they did it to drive home their CX, not to capitalize on a bad situation. They didn’t need to change their product, because their product was relevant, is relevant, and will remain relevant as long as they use their CX as true north for development decisions.
  • Support Experience  Look. A few of their clients couldn’t pay. Did they get all up in their face and start throwing contracts and terms at them? Did they cut off service and demand immediate payment? No. They said, “We get it. We appreciate the business you’ve given us and we want to keep helping you recognize and appreciate everyday heroes. So why don’t you keep using the product and we’ll figure out some payment terms you can live with. And if we can’t do that, let’s keep you on the platform for 90 days free. If you can’t pick up payment after 90 days, then we can create a new plan together.”

All of these decisions were easy for Company X. Because they didn’t try to approach their COVID-19 response from a marketing orientation. They approached it from a CX orientation. Marketing is only part of CX. It is not the whole enchilada. It’s more like the queso (which, I must say, is my favorite part).

How to Judge Tex-Mex Restaurants

Queso. Margaritas (rocks with salt). Carne Guisada.

When will this damn thing be over?!?

When Metrics Become Your Strategy (Back to Sales and Marketing)

I was in our San Francisco office several weeks ago, and as I often do, I scanned Jonathan Goodman’s desk to see if he had left behind any good reading materials that I could steal. I came across this article in Harvard Business Review (Jonathan is the kind of guy who subscribes to HBR — I love that about him). This article about “surrogation” is awesome: “Don’t Let Metrics Undermine Your Business.” Trust me. I don’t recommend a lot of articles or books — this one is very important.

The upshot is that when metrics eat strategy, bad things happen. The authors use the example of Wells Fargo. I’ll use the example of “pipeline metrics.” Pipeline metrics and conversion ratios are not a strategy. They are measures that help you determine how your strategy is performing at any given time. Your strategy might be something like, “become the market leader in the continuous performance management category.” And to achieve that strategy, you might have a plan to build a certain level of brand recognition; drive a certain number of inquiries, MQLs, and SQLs; and close a certain number of deals. In this scenario, marketing and sales teams are extremely vulnerable to surrogation. They quickly lose sight of the overall strategy and become hyper-focused on the conversion metrics. When MQLs aren’t converting to SQLs, they start fiddling with campaigns to increase the ratios, often losing sight of the impact they are having on the customer experience. Remember, we live in a B2B marketing world where it’s currently acceptable to drive folks through a sales gauntlet and piss off 4 in 5 prospects as long as we close 1 in 5. That’s not smart. That’s surrogation.

As COVID-19 really started to take shape around the world, a lot of sales teams freaked out. They saw their numbers going down. And since the numbers had become the strategy, they were looking for ways to keep their numbers up instead of thinking through the strategy and making decisions based on a shared CX vision. That’s why some companies are still closing deals and others are pissing people off with tone-deaf messages or going into the deep freeze until they can launch their slash-and-burn sales programs again later this year (1 in 5, baby!).

You can thank the marketing automation category for this. Companies like HubSpot wanted to make us believe that concepts like “inbound marketing” are actually strategies. These aren’t strategies; these are marketing models. And they are marketing models forwarded by big software companies that stand to earn a lot more revenue if their platform supports the dominant marketing model in B2B. Problem is, they made marketing all about numbers.

And when marketing is about numbers instead of experiences, it’s not marketing at all. It’s accounting. Which is cool. Accounting is cool. No big deal.

If you want to liberate your marketing team to do good work, drive rapid response to change during uncertain times (and times are always uncertain), and create a unified experience across all the touch points your customer has with your business, set aside notions of marketing, sales, product, and service living in separate apartments while occasionally getting together for an awkward singles mixer. Start reading up on CX and take a leadership role in bringing the different functions of your business together to create a CX vision and activate that vision across all business pillars and with every employee in the company.

And here is a simple plan for building your CX program:

  1. Set a vision for your customer experience. We like to think about it from a Self-Determination Theory perspective. What are the high-impact motivators for your customers? What is your purpose or motivation as a company? What is your dominant behavioral attribute that defines how you interact with your customers? And what is your unique contribution to satisfy their motivations?
  2. Create a strategy for implementing CX. Remember, strategy is just a fancy word for creating some goals and a plan to achieve them. You may also want to conduct some research to help inform your vision and strategy. This can be accomplished through primary and secondary research, both quantitative and qualitative. Think surveys, interviews, and focus groups with folks in the company, your customers, prospects, and maybe even some industry analysts.
  3. Design your CX. This may sound overwhelming, but it can actually be quite straightforward. Simply start by asking what each pillar in your business (and each person) can do to help deliver on your CX from their seat in the business. You may also consider validating your design using the same techniques (and audiences) you used for research.
  4. Then think about how to activate your CX strategy through people, content, channels, technology, and data.
  5. Finally, measure the hell out of it (just don’t let your metrics become the strategy).

That might sound like a lot, but if you follow a good process and bring the right people together in your company, you can create and activate your CX strategy (at least in a minimally viable iteration) within a couple of months.

The Bottom Line

Good (even great) marketing in a silo is not enough to create competitive advantage anymore. Marketing is one part of CX. It should also be noted that most analysts agree that marketing should lead CX by bringing all the leaders of different business functions to the table (because CX requires a skill set that is most similar to the marketing skill set). 

So listen up B2B tech marketers — step up to the CX challenge. It will be the one thing that separates you from your competitors in a meaningful way. It’s also a good career move.