Each Friday, Points North gives a senior media figure a platform to air their views on a topical or relevant issue.

This week it’s Gordon Bethell, chairman of CreativeRace. He argues that brands need to do much more to cultivate a deeper relationship with their customers. 

On my most recent journey to Kings Cross a fellow passenger decided to vent his frustration at the train guard about a 28-minute delay. The train guard politely and professionally advised the passenger that as the period of the delay was only 28 minutes and not the stipulated 30 minutes there would be no compensation due to him at all.

The event started a debate in my head – the guard was professional and polite and was clear about the rules. And by sticking to the rules then he was far less likely to face abuse in the future. On the other hand, for the sake of two minutes, maybe it would be better to take a more flexible approach and honour the delay payment on the basis that a happy passenger is far more likely to become a passenger again in the future.

bethellThe answer to the debate for me is simple – with a deep understanding of the customer I would be in a position to be far more engaging and responsive. If I had access to the passenger’s email address I might be able to work out where he lived, how many times he travelled on my service and how much he had paid for his tickets.

With access to more data about that passenger I could start to work out what communication he had already had from my brand, if any. Perhaps the passenger in question was already negative towards the train brand – a quick check of his email address on the customer service database could tell me.

It makes sense to know your customer and to understand how that customer touches your business at every step. As a regular passenger on trains my every log-in to the wifi service is met with exactly the same welcome screen – unpersonalised and generic. My engagement really could be significantly improved if the brand behind my wifi access had a customer contact strategy in place.

But it’s easy for agencies to describe the perfect scenario and then criticise the client for not having all possible bases covered. Right now, clients have an overwhelming choice of ways to communicate with their customers.

New technology, new devices and new channels means that clients increasingly choose a range of agencies to cover all bases.

The result is lots of messages, in lots of channels, that can slowly but surely undermine the very simplicity and consistency of the brand truth.

Developing a deep understanding of customers means creating a relationship with them. Not only that, savvy customers today expect a relationship, and where the transaction between the customer is deep – for example home sales, holiday sales or gym membership – there is no excuse for not creating such relationships.

So how can brands best create these relationships? It is often the CRM agency itself that fails to put its customers (clients) at the heart of its business. For me symptoms of this behaviour fall into three categories:

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a) Selling the Dream – every client needs a CRM-based marketing platform but getting hold of every single data source in a large business proves costly and is sometimes just not possible. Getting the IT software to talk to the retail software along with the marketing software is an enormous challenge. In a recent client meeting with a retail start-up my suggestion that we capture email addresses from the beginning was cast aside.

b) Feeding the drug – it doesn’t take long for a business to see the commercial benefit of a well-targeted email campaign. But the numbers often result in requests for more emails to be sent. So clients end up with a batch-and-blast email strategy that quickly turns their customers off. In the past 12 months I have personally received over 100 sales-led emails from a premium bike specialist – this demonstrated that they do not know me and makes me more negative towards their brand every time I receive one.

c) Integration Blues – a specialist agency offers expertise that a client needs. However, it can be isolated from other channels unless it has a true partnership with other roster agencies or a client that really can herd several cats. Brands need specialists within a broader wrapper so they know that when their backs are turned the communication that is being created across every channel is being done with a keen eye on the central creative idea.

Whilst I accept it’s difficult to put into practice the answer lies in the ability to do less better. CRM itself should be about segmentation and true targeting – creating better results from talking to fewer customers. Rather than try to overcome all data challenges in the business, pick one and do it well, start with the basics of capture at key contact points, develop simple contact strategies for key segments and test and trial until you get an optimum result.

Customers demand relationships nowadays – and as we all know those fewer customers with deeper relationships will prove more valuable than the larger numbers of customers who have no relationship. Just ask Pareto.