The new customer relationship is here

To win the trust of consumers in the digital age, brands must master the art of real-time, humanised engagement at scale, while also keeping all the customer data safe and secure

The relationship between customers and brands has transformed in recent years, and not only how they interact across different channels but also the nature of their relationship. Whereas previously that relationship was almost entirely defined by how well companies met the needs of their customers, now it is far more complex and requires a careful digital transformation strategy. In Salesforce’s 2021 State of Marketing report, 90% of marketing leaders globally said the pandemic has changed their digital engagement strategy.

Plainly, customers have grown to expect more from brands in the digital age. In another recent report by Salesforce, State of the Connected Customer, 56% of consumers said they have re-evaluated the societal role of companies. It is no longer enough to be good at a particular product or service. Brands now need to stand for something larger; a cause that is important to the wider community they serve. Be it climate change, diversity, giving back to good causes, ethical supply chains or bringing more social justice to the world, people expect companies to align with their personal values.

Meanwhile, with the rise of ecommerce, brands have to engage with more relevancy and humanity, and tell a consistent story across touchpoints. Those who show up consistently in all customer interactions grow stronger relationships, and business growth becomes a by-product of customer experience done well. This is the frontier of a new kind of loyalty that cannot be achieved with points on a plastic card or discount codes. In a switch-driven marketplace with unlimited choice, customers only return if they feel seen, heard and treated as a human being.

“To hit long-term growth goals, leaders have to look inwards, asking uncomfortable questions such as do their current ways of working and organisational structure support a customer-centric culture?” says Jo Pettifer, vice-president of marketing, UK & Ireland, at Salesforce. “As companies embrace hybrid work models in the post-pandemic age, they should be designing them around the customer experience, leaning heavily on their core values as they transform externally and internally to meet new imperatives. It’s not a digital transformation – it’s a digital customer transformation.”

Despite trust growing more important than ever in a consumer-brand relationship, 99% of customers believe companies need to improve their trustworthiness, according to Salesforce’s State of Connected Customer report. Social media feeds have blurred the lines between friends and brands, with consumers now expecting the authenticity that they get in the former with the latter too.

Released early August, Salesforce’s State of Marketing report revealed that the top tactics which high-performing marketers turn to are aimed at increased engagement: pre-produced video, livestream video and influencer marketing. Communicating with humanity is a common thread through all three.

Trust online, underpinned by real-time, humanised engagement, translates directly into sales. In the second quarter of 2020, traffic to digital websites from social media referrals grew by a record 104% over the same quarter the prior year, and orders generated by those referrals were up by the same figure, according to Salesforce’s State of Commerce report.

Of course, trust is about more than just communicating in an authentic way. When shopping online, there is an underlying expectation for strong privacy and security, and consumers will only trust brands which collect and process their data with care and transparency. If data is used to provide a better experience, they’ll trust brands with more of it, and reward them with loyalty.

“With so many interactions moving online, safety and security have become an integral part of the customer experience,” says Pettifer. “A secure, customer-centric experience includes everything from the reliability of your storefront at peak times to the security of your payments infrastructure and the efficiency of your local fulfillment centre. Customers expect their data to be treated with diligence, so it must now be part of your brand promise to be a good shepherd while also holding payment processors, security providers and others to the highest standards.”

To improve customer experience as a whole, leaders across all customer-facing departments must rethink how their teams work. Technologies like Slack allow cross-team work to flow without friction, so customers feel heard and engaged through all touchpoints, as opposed to the stop-start interactions rooted in siloed systems and processes. A customer-centric culture, empowered by technology, is the secret to brand trust, loyalty and unlocking long-term growth.

Designing a great, trusting customer experience requires a shift in technology, culture and organisational alignment. But siloed data and legacy tools, when combined with the rapid pace of change, from customer expectations to employee skill set requirements, make building relationships and connecting every interaction to a cohesive journey extremely challenging.

A customer-centric culture, empowered by technology, is the secret to brand trust, loyalty and unlocking long-term growth

Successful CMOs, at the forefront of the digital customer transformation, tackle these challenges on both fronts. Firstly, they are highly invested in helping their teams gain the necessary digital skills to meet this new imperative. To lend a hand here, Salesforce has launched the Marketer Career Path, an on-demand, free online learning platform offering solution-agnostic education for those seeking to enter the marketing profession or advance their career.

Secondly, CMOs are seeking to simplify the tech stack, making it easier to use for all teams involved in customer experience. Winning customers’ trust is now a common goal across the business, from marketing, commerce and service to IT, cyber security and finance. Though it is no longer just down to marketing, the marketing team often leads the digital transformation supported by their customer data, sophisticated personalisation, innovative tools and ever-evolving skill sets.

Salesforce’s customer data platform is built on the world’s most trusted and secure customer relationship management system. Enabling all departments to consolidate their data into one customer profile for each individual unlocks the opportunity for commerce, marketing and service teams to deliver real-time, humanised digital interactions adhering to the highest security and trust. Thanks to its underlying integration, users of Salesforce’s solution suite gain loyalty through digital excellence which so many others still seek to achieve.

“The brands that get ahead, by truly knowing their customers and humanising every moment, will reap the long-standing benefits of customer trust, loyalty, increased lifetime value and, of course, business growth,” says Pettifer. “The marketing leaders who are ready to take on the immediate challenges, including cross-departmental alignment around meaningful data and metrics, executing the digital transformation strategy and upskilling, are tomorrow’s heroes.”

Long-term thinking and a decisive move beyond vanity metrics is required to showcase not just immediate marketing campaign effectiveness but the brand value and long-term strategic contribution to business growth. Given the complexity of the action required to meet customer expectations, there is no room for playing safe. Brands that do will be left behind by the brands that focus on long-term relationship building, driven by purpose and core values.

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