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The Art of Asking: Building Trusted Relationships with Customers Over Time

Everyone wants their customers’ love. Marketers collectively spend billions of dollars each year to get it, while consumers are increasingly resistant to give it. Too often, marketers are in a mad race to lure customers across every channel – online to offline, desktop to mobile, social media to experiential, pop-up stores, in-store freebies and more. But, with little knowledge of who they’re actually reaching, and no explicit permission to do so, this kind of runaway marketing – from customers’ perspectives – amounts to an annoyance at best, and outright stalking at worst. As a result, more and more consumers are simply saying “enough!”

More than this, nearly 50% of marketing is ineffective at driving new business anyway. 20-plus years after the Internet went “public”, plenty of big brands still pump out their messages to the masses through myriad channels without understanding which elements of their marketing mix work. This is not only wasteful but can lead to consumers feeling dehumanized and ignored.

Shouting marketing messages through dozens of channels without understanding customers is ineffective and also risky.

Predictably, then, brand trust, and trust in corporations in general, is now at an all-time low. According to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, a mere 52% of respondents stated that they trust business to do what is right. And, in another survey by McCann, 42% of consumers said they perceive companies and brands as less truthful today than those of 20 years ago.

A crowded playing field

Today’s consumers also face a glut of options. Massive e-commerce engines driven by digital giants like Amazon and Walmart, along with eBay, Shopify, Etsy and other “DIY” digital commerce portals have changed the game for traditional retailers. Travel and hospitality aggregator sites and apps have had a similar effect on airlines, hotels, car rental agencies and travel agencies. The situation is similar even for highly regulated industries such as insurance, healthcare, and big pharma.

This, in turn, has driven increased demand from today’s mobile and savvy consumers for more personalized, in-moment experiences to help them navigate this incredibly complex landscape. In short, they want brands to know and understand them, in order to get them to what they want along the shortest possible line. In simple terms, they want boutique, not big box experiences.

More and more businesses are responding by striving to reinvent their models to deliver these experiences, but many also struggle to balance these efforts with another unavoidable truth of the digital marketplace: the increasing need for data privacy. How do you use consumers’ personal data to drive relevant interactions without creeping them out and driving them away?

On everyone’s hurt list:

Limited customer insights, fragmented customer data, overly complex orchestration and governance, and strict data protection and consumer privacy requirements, including those of Europe’s newly enacted General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR.)

In a prior blog post, I spoke about the flawed thinking rife throughout marketing that’s generated quite a response since it was published. In essence, when businesses approach privacy as a series of checklists for system and policy updates, they miss the bigger opportunity to reimagine their broader strategy to address their customers’ need for transparency and control across their journeys. While doing this is, by definition, a truly enterprise-wide effort, there is a single component that can accelerate the process, and that is gaining the ability to build a unified customer profile.

Of course, any business with digital properties maintains customer profiles, or accounts. The problem is often that, for any given customer, their data may be spread haphazardly across the business, locked in silos for various brands, regions, and customer engagement technologies. This means much of it remains disconnected and unavailable as a whole to any one stakeholder. In short, nobody in the enterprise has a complete view of this customer, and without this view, true, one-to-one omnichannel marketing becomes difficult, or even impossible.


For example, a marketer running an e-mail campaign for one brand may have no idea that a particular customer has also signed up for the loyalty program of another brand owned by the same company. A sales associate in a physical store may have no visibility into the purchase history or preferences of a shopper. A customer service representative may not have no clue about a caller’s usage patterns for a device or service until they hear about it from them on a phone call or chat session. This makes for an inconsistent experience and, all too often, frustrated or disappointed customers.

Today's digital customers have unlimited options and are increasingly suspicious of companies collecting and processing their personal data.

Also, in this situation, meaningful analysis becomes challenging, governance and orchestration of data can be difficult to manage, and the risk of regulatory non-compliance is ever-present.

Without a holistic solution for managing customer data across the enterprise – including the ability to build unified profiles from first-party data – marketers often fail to hit their mark, despite their best intentions. Marketers working with incomplete or inaccurate datasets can end up with diminishing returns for their demand generation programs and increased customer churn, as customers opt out of communications, promotions and personalized marketing, and even post damaging reviews to their social networks.

Again, consumers have virtually unlimited options and, once they leave, it’s extremely hard to win them back. With a flurry of big brand retailers closing stores en masse, digital transformation is no longer a new frontier, but the new reality. The situation described above is the result of businesses taking an old world approach to a new world challenge. Essentially, “if you build it, they will come.” Today, however, that is simply not the case. Today’s marketplace is less and less transactional, and more and more relational. It’s not enough to be big and beautiful, you must know and understand your customers, and respect their wishes at every touchpoint.

Why and how to build trusted customer relationships

First, the why.

Think about this: Would you rather be on a blind date, or on a date with someone that you’ve come to know and like over time? For most of us, that’s a no-brainer. Just as we tend to feel more comfortable with people we know and understand, the same can be said about the relationship between customer and brand. To move closer to this social paradigm, successful digital businesses are increasingly employing a technique called “progressive profiling,” and it amounts to the antithesis of “spray and pray” advertising, or strongarm conversion tactics that demand customers hand over reams of personal information for even the simplest transaction.

Instead, progressive profiling, as the term implies, involves a dynamic and gradual course of action that, importantly, takes place on the customer’s terms, not the brand’s. By offering relevant experiences, clearly and consistently asking for permission to collect and process data, and gathering only the information necessary to serve customers in the way they want, brands can build a profile for each customer based on earned trust. To maintain that trust, it’s also important to ensure customers are not only treated with transparency about what data is being collected and how it’s used, but to give them meaningful control of that information.

Next, the how.

Whether the first touch with a customer is a simple newsletter subscription sign up, an anonymous “guest” checkout at point of sale, or a registration form to create a full account, the idea is to keep it as simple and frictionless as possible. With competitors constantly waiting in the wings for frustrated customers to exercise their options, convenience is king. But, convenience doesn’t have to mean anonymous.

By putting a holistic profile management solution in place – one that can consolidate a wide range of attributes from every device, channel, and platform into a truly unified customer profile – you’re in position to move the relationship forward. As long as the customer has given their permission for you to do so, you can use what you know about them to continually deliver value and convenience, in turn, gathering more information through ongoing “in-the-flow” value-for-data exchanges.

For example, on someone’s next visit after a purchase, why not ask them to rate or review their new product, suggest something that compliments it, or even offer a gift in exchange for an additional piece of information such as their birthday? In essence, this creates a virtuous cycle that encourages product and service “stickiness,” and with it, naturally derived loyalty. And, today, retention has overtaken conversion as most businesses’ top priority.

Now, let’s look at this “why and how” equation through the lens of some industry-focused use cases that demonstrate what combining a progressive strategy with an effective customer profile management solution can achieve.

Travel and Hospitality: In this fickle business, loyalty is everything. It’s also far from a given, with myriad choices in the marketplace and highly convenience- and cost-conscious travellers. With a solid progressive profiling strategy and a flexible solution for managing customer data, businesses in this complex landscape go beyond “catalog” marketing to inspire and delight customers while reducing the stress of travel planning.

Travel and hospitality brands have an opportunity to use customers' first-party data to deliver more engaging experiences that encourage loyalty.

Since travellers tap travel and hospitality companies’ web and mobile properties not just to book trips, but to plan them, these are ideal environments for progressive profiling. Using a light-touch approach and a holistic and centralized profile management solution, a rich portrait of each customer can be painted in small strokes over dozens of interactions. Beyond identity details such as name, e-mail address, and zip code – with the consent of customers – you can capture details such as advance travel plans, top destinations and wish lists, preferred hotels, most popular vacation seasons, as well as departure dates and locations, number of fellow travellers, resort services and rental car bookings, and more.

As each traveller’s profile grows, you can use that permission-based data to fuel more relevant, in-moment experiences. From promotional campaigns, to search results, to paid ads, to reccomendations and tailored content, everything about your customers’ journeys becomes more natural, fluid, and personally meaningful. Meanwhile, your business becomes a trusted companion and advisor for present and future travel planning and booking.

Sports: For sports fanatics, it’s not always a question of simply if and when they attend or watch events, but the nuances they experience through their mobile devices at events or over-the-top digital channels at home or on the go. Online and mobile programs can socialize fans’ experience, enhance the experience and connect people at live events, and even unlock entirely new ways of experiencing a game, race, or tournament. By keeping the experience going long after the final buzzer, fans will engage more,  buy more merchandise, and become potent evangelists for their favorite sports brands.

With a best-in-breed customer profile management solution and progressive profiling strategy in place, your sports brand can:

  • Identify and segment fans, and drive them to customized experiences on team, club, or league channels
  • Understand how fans engage by recording their activities and content consumption patterns, and use that intelligence to make smarter investments and decisions
  • Create recognition programs that drive involvement and reward your most loyal and passionate fans
  • Power highly effective programmatic over-the-top (OTT) digital content that keeps fans engaged throughout and beyond the season

E-commerce and Retail: To bring a boutique experience to the masses, retailers and e-commerce businesses can tap into progressive profiling strategies to understand and engage shoppers in more personal and meaningful ways. By adding customers’ histories and preferences to their profiles as they browse and shop, each successive interaction becomes less of a “wandering the aisles” exercise, and more of a curated, bespoke experience that encourages loyalty, repeat visits, and brand advocacy.

A retail customer’s profile might contain, among many other things, your customers’:

  • Favorite brands
  • Clothing and shoe sizes
  • Preferred colors
  • Popular store locations
  • Wishlists and registries
  • Loyalty program details
  • Content libraries
  • Memberships and subscriptions
  • Service requests
  • Social engagement attributes: ratings, reviews, comments, friends, followers, and so on

With a richer portrait of each customer, your brand can deliver more relevant content and recommendations; more value in the form of reward discounts and other special offers for your best customers; and, more convenience and less stress through pared-down decision-making, quicker check-outs, and simpler product discovery.

Plus, through in-store kiosks, connected point-of-sale systems, and beacon technologies, you can truly bridge the gap between online and offline experiences, maximizing your ability to deliver the right message, product, or service to customers at just the right time and place.

Wrapping Up

Mastering the art of asking for marketers doesn’t require years of study. It only requires a renewed focus on the customer, a well-designed strategy for progressively building unified,k permission-based customer profiles, and a mature, centralized solution for collecting and managing customers’ profiles, preferences, consent and IoT information. Adopting a true customer-first posture benefits both customer and brand. Customers reap the rewards of more relevant and dynamic experiences, and businesses increase top-line growth while decreasing bottom-line risks.

What pain have you encountered when asking consumers for permission to engage with them? Let us know with the Twitter hashtag #endmyhell.

Want to learn more best practices for digital marketing and customer data management? Join us for an informative webinar hosted by our friends at the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP) and featuring a data privacy expert from Shopify.

By Ratul Shah

Gigya has updated its Privacy Policy as Gigya, Inc. has been acquired by SAP America, Inc. and Gigya has updated the information regarding how we collect and use your Personal Data. You can see the updated Privacy Policy here.