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Thought Leadership

3 Principles To Help You Rethink Your Approach To Customer Data

It's a great time to revisit our assumptions about our customers.

This post is part of our Moment Makers series, which takes a deep dive into how marketers use technology to build data-driven customer experiences that feel natural, relevant, and right on time.

Customers behave differently during crises, and our data strategies have to adapt. During the dark days of the financial crisis of 2008-09, when I led an analytics team at a marketing agency, I met with the CMO of a U.S.-based credit card company. She had noticed a disturbing pattern in her customer data: early-stage companies were charging more on their cards but missing more payments. Heavy late fees made their burdens worse, at the worst possible time.

Looking at the drivers, we saw the problem came down to cash flow. It was temporary and often outside their control. So the CMO made a bold choice, offering a new “start-up card” with less stringent payment terms. The company lost little on the venture and made a cohort of customers who proved to be more loyal than the company’s average cardholder.

Today, as businesses around the globe decide how and when to reopen, it’s a great time to revisit our assumptions about our customers. Like the charge card company’s, your customers have probably changed due to the pandemic. 

Based on experience and what Salesforce has learned from our own customers, we recommend three basic principles to guide data-driven marketers in reassessing their approach to customer data: communicate clearly, revisit old assumptions, and practice long-term thinking.

1. Communicate clearly

Whatever your industry, your customers likely start with a level of distrust. For example, a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults revealed that 81% think they have little control over companies collection of their data, and an equal proportion think the risks outweigh the benefits. An alarmingly small 6% said they had a “good understanding” of how companies are using their data.

Personalized communication is less about you as a company and more about your customers – their wants, needs, and attitudes in the moment. Uncovering customer needs from data is even more important during times of rapid change, and it’s a key differentiator in customer connections. Salesforce research [recommend viewing dashboard on desktop] found that 71% of consumers say companies who show sensitivity to the current climate are more likely to earn their loyalty.

Customers also told us they are willing to share information with companies that inspire trust by clearly communicating how, when, and why they’ll use the data. In fact, 58% of respondents to our State of the Connected Customer report said they agreed with the statement “I’m comfortable with relevant personal information being used in a transparent and beneficial manner,” while only 17% disagreed.

Key takeaway: Rather than focusing only on data pipelines, customer data teams should also double down on communication, telling customers exactly how and why they’re collecting and using their data, and what they’ll get in return. This strategy is known to produce happier customers.

2. Revisit old assumptions

During the early months of the COVID-19 crisis, brands scrambled to adapt their messaging – for example, by removing things like high-fives and finger-licking that no longer fit into a world of social distancing. After that, many rose to the moment with campaigns that were more down-to-earth. For example, Toyota pivoted from a sales-promotion campaign to a series of videos emphasizing home and family with the tagline, “We Are Here For You.” Revamped campaigns better reflected customers’ changing needs: one survey revealed people want to hear messages that were “safe” and “hopeful” from brands.

Recognizing no two crises are exactly alike, researchers at Harvard studied how customer attitudes and behaviors change during downturns. They saw broad changes both in behavior and how categories of products and services were perceived. Some customers remained optimistic, while others (often, but not always, younger people) threw caution to the wind and “lived for today.” Meanwhile, some “nonessential” products such as makeup and skin care are seen as even more important by many sheltering-in-place today.

Recent Salesforce research [recommend viewing dashboard on desktop] shows how fast consumer sentiments change. Between May 1 and July 1, customer optimism rose six percentage points, confidence rose five points, and trust rose six points. More than ever, marketers need to examine customer data and adapt rapidly to shifts.

Key takeaway: Your customers are going through a lot of changes, and it makes sense that what worked pre-pandemic may not work so well now. Previous analyses into segments, attitudes, and positioning will have to change. Revisit them and develop tools such as surveys and tests to fill data gaps.

3. Practice long-term thinking

There’s ample evidence investing in fundamentals such as R&D, workforce training, and brand advertising during tough times yields long-term benefits. The same goes for customer relationships. If you can afford it, reorienting around longer-term key performance indicators (KPI) and more holistic measures of health will provide long-term dividends.

Now is a time when most B2C and B2B companies are dealing with price sensitivity. Discounts and other concessions are common. There is wholesale revision in annual targets, as relatively few companies can maintain their pre-pandemic momentum.

Shifting from a topline-focused KPI such as net sales or profits may not work anymore. However, short-term pain can yield long-term gain. Recall the components of customer lifetime value (CLTV): revenue x frequency x retention %. If you’re willing to be patient, shifting to a focus on retention and loyalty through superior empathy and service will overcome a (temporary) dip in revenue.

Key takeaway: As we gear up and return to work, we owe it to our stakeholders and customers to ensure we’re infusing clarity into our data collection and communication, we’re revisiting our pre-pandemic data assumptions, and we’re focused on making recovery work for the long run.

For a closer look at managing data:

Marketing Cloud offers solutions for digital marketing, email marketing, social media marketing, customer journey mapping, marketing analytics, marketing automation, and B2B marketing to help you personalize customer communications across every digital touchpoint — from anywhere.

In a former life, he was a research vice president at Gartner, where he wrote and spoke widely about marketing technology, and he has advised numerous Fortune 500 clients on marketing strategy. He’s also authored four books, including “House of Lies,” which was adapted for TV by Showtime, and the upcoming “Customer Data Platforms: Use People Data to Transform Marketing Engagement,” cowritten with Chris O'Hara and arriving in November. Fun fact: Kihn was head writer for the MTV series Pop-Up Video from 1997-1999.

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