Instead of understanding customer inquiries as isolated transactions, enterprise brands need to see -- and, most importantly act on -- inquiries as pieces of an ongoing dialogue, says Elana Anderson, vice-president of product marketing and strategy at Unica Corporation.
"Marketing is thought of as synonymous with pushing a message 'outbound,'" explains Anderson. "But if you think about it, your opportunity to engage customers and prospects during inbound interactions is much, much greater; for instance, when a customer visits your Web site or calls you on the phone. Customers and prospects that reach out to you are already engaged and paying attention -- marketing has the opportunity to make the best of that visit. The challenge is to take that window of opportunity and leverage your historical understanding of that individual as well as the contextual information that the individual provides in real time (during the interaction) in order to determine the most meaningful offer or communication to extend."
The notion of using inbound channels to target personalization goes back quite a way, of course. Due to a combination of cultural habits and primitive or cumbersome technology, however, the convergence of inbound and outbound communications remained mostly theoretical.
"In the early 2000s, there was a lot of excitement about using inbound customer service channels and call centers to initiate cross-sell and retention programs," Anderson says. "But there were two big problems. First, the technology couldn't support it. Managing the data effectively was tremendously expensive, and to integrate it for distribution on demand across the enterprise wasn't practical. Many companies literally spent millions attempting to do this, and the results were still far from seamless in terms of ease of deployment."
Another more subtle problem, she adds, was the fact that "the call center was a human channel, with all of the associated cultural challenges. Call centers had to work to change service rep behavior as well as change their own measurement metrics, which tended to focus on operational metrics like number of calls handled, call time, etc. Basically the practices in place imposed an idea of efficiency which made the priority to get the customers off the phone ASAP."
Though still largely perceived as an outbound platform, the Web, Anderson maintains, is better understood as an ideal conduit for targeting consumers based on inbound behaviors.
"The Web as a customer interface is a huge opportunity that's been ignored or siloed as a personal customer contact vehicle," she says. "Most emphasis on the Web to date has still been focused on optimizing for the aggregate visitor, not customizing the experience to the individual. Beyond that, the ability to coordinate from the Web channel to another channel (e.g., the call center) is increasingly possible today given the advances in marketing technology."
Key to enabling inbound/outbound convergence is a centralized easily deployable "global brain," able to connect data being continually collected from customers in a wide variety of channels.
This centralized marketing and decisioning "brain" can make "corporate memory" dynamic, says Anderson. "Based on its awareness of the customer and using knowledge of all past touch point transactions, it can determine the best next communication for each customer in whatever channel they happen to be on at that moment."
One area where Anderson sees enormous opportunity to pursue inbound-outbound convergence is financial services. "If you think of the way customers use bank Web sites," she says, "you have enormous quantities of inbound activity. For example, a customer comes to the Web twice a week to check their account balance. They can be given an offer based on their existing profile. Perhaps they open an email outlining the offer and, while they don't act on it immediately, they do research the bank site for more background. If, like many customers, they'd rather call or visit the bank personally, that data should be integrated into all subsequent communications with that customer so that... the offer or related services and features can be featured."
Anderson is encouraged by the tighter relationships she sees forming between customer service and marketing professionals. "Two years ago when I met with groups, I rarely saw the online marketing team and the CRM [Customer Relationship Management] people in the same room," she recalls. "Today they're coming to the table together much more regularly.
Looking forward, Anderson believes 2009 should be the year enterprises define an inbound strategy for the emerging mobile channel. "Marketers still look at mobile as a push medium," she says, "but the real opportunity for mobile is not pushing out SMS messages so much as making your mobile channel a place for useful customer contact and information. Again, it's about pull marketing [as the] real value for consumers. "