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Interview: Using data to develop strong customer relationships

Vishal Katelia has worked in data-driven customer marketing for over 10 years spanning the travel, retail and hospitality sectors. Most recently he has been overseeing the customer strategy for global luxury brands MR PORTER and Soho House & Co. He is passionate about using data to create compelling customer journeys that improve both sales and customer experience for brands.

We recently caught up with Vish to talk to him about his work, ideas and passion for data and using it to drive strong customer relationships. It was an inspiring talk and one that shows the power of data and the challenges with continually delighting customers in their experience with your brand.

We would love to hear more stories like this so please do get in touch if you would like to talk to us.

Here is the transcript of our conversation…

JF: So lets get stuck in with the topic and understand your view on why using data is so important in helping to develop strong relationships with your customers?

VK: We build relationships with family, friends and our peers by understanding each other. While we can’t talk to every customer it’s the data that we collect that act as the conversations needed to help us understand them.

From here we can use what we have to analyse and build a picture of who our customers are and then start developing relationships either through personalised marketing or via elevated service propositions.

One thing that I always stress is that like any relationship, there needs to be a partnership between the business and the customer. Customers consent to giving us their data and businesses should use this to provide value back and build trust. Those are the key fundamentals of creating strong, lasting relationships.

JF: In what ways, therefore, do you think that data can help engage customers?

VK: I generally categorise customer engagement into two broad categories.

One is engagement via marketing to inspire additional sales, conversions or visits to a site through an understanding of past purchase history, preferences, wish list and site browsing behaviour packed into compelling campaigns.

The second is engagement via elevated customer service by harnessing relevant data points and using them to connect with customers at a deeper level. Examples here include recognising past requests such as room types or what your most ordered drink is at the bar. This can be a powerful tool to differentiate an otherwise ordinary service into one that customers will remember and value and therefore instil loyalty.

JF: What are the most important data points to help understand customer behaviour?

VK: It really depends on the objective. Traditional RFM data points are essential for a customer segmentation project. Whilst website data points such as product and page views, device types, entry and exit pages are valuable when understanding onsite behaviour. Tracking interactions in the offline world is trickier but with things like store cards and loyalty apps it is possible to harness this data and make sense what customers are doing in physical stores.

The real power then comes from stitching all this together and building the holistic view of the customer that provides the ability to create cleverly orchestrated customer centric campaigns and journeys.

My general rule is that if the data point doesn’t hold any value to the business or you can’t use to improve the customer experience then you shouldn’t waste time or resources on capturing it. This way of thinking helps to prioritise what data points to capture.

JF:  We often speak to customers and they articulate challenges in going after this opportunity. In your experience why do organisations find it challenging to create a strong view of their customers?

VK: In most cases the actual concept of why organisations would like a detailed view of their customers is pretty well adopted. The reasons as to why it makes sense is also easy to grasp but in many cases it’s a tough challenge to crack. I’ve found that the reasons normally fall into a few categories.

One is a lack of budget and resources. To get this right it needs the right level of staffing and budget. The journey can also seem daunting and there are usually many other projects that trump the investment needed for robust CRM solutions and databases. What really helps is having a sponsor at the most senior level who is invested in the customer.

Secondly, thinking that CRM or customer management is a departmental responsibility rather than a business wide philosophy – the idea of customer management lying with one team is not so relevant anymore. To really succeed, a collaborative, cross-functional approach to managing customers is needed to develop processes which have buy-in across all levels and teams.

Finally, silos or departmental organisations where stages of the customer journey are overseen by different teams . Customer’s don’t think about how or where they interact with a brand. Breaking down the customer journey into stages often results in inconsistencies in experience and a murky view of what the customer is doing. Information from all touchpoints should be available to all customer facing teams so that anyone engaging with the customer has the insight required to act accordingly.

JF: What approaches have you seen work in using data for customer acquisition strategies?

VK: A couple of examples that I have used which have worked are in the creation of customer profiles and in prospecting for new customers.

Using demographic, qualitative and transaction data to build a picture of who your customer is has helped me to create customer profiles. This can then be used to prioritise marketing spend but also importantly educate the business on who they are serving.

I also find that using existing customers to find look-a-like targets to help with prospecting improves acquisition. Channelling investment to find only the right type of customer to acquire rather than mass targeting. This has been useful when working with niche or very specific product.

JF: Customer data privacy is growing topic of concern for people. How do you ensure your customers are aware their interactions are being tracked and how it will be used?

VK: Always be upfront and transparent. Customers should feel in control of their data and what they share. It’s also really important to clearly demonstrate the benefits of capturing the data and interactions. What is the value exchange? The best way to think about this is from the customer’s perspective and ask yourself ”what is in this for the customer”?  In any case, always give customers a choice about having their data collected.

That said, there is more of an understanding that collecting data is the norm and the majority of customers accept that the data collected is used to provide a better and more personalised service.

JF: Are the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation high on the agenda and how are you tackling this?

VK: Anything to do with legislation and compliance is high on the agenda because privacy and fairness to customers is of paramount importance to us. We have started to review our policies in readiness to when the new rules come into play next year. As well as this we will be educating all customer facing teams on the importance of adhering to the practice.

JF: Finally, how important will data science, machine learning and artificial intelligence be in engaging with customers in the future?

The prevalence of these methods will continue to evolve especially as users’ attention span continues to diminish. With increasingly less time on our hands behaviour will shift from searching for information to having results automatically suggested without us knowing.

Many of these practices are already changing the way people interact and engage.  Voice technology as a channel for conversational commerce rather than typing, chatbots and advanced modelling for showcasing the next best offer, relevant content and even music recommendations are examples. Furthermore, the increase in “always connected devices” and the wealth of lifestyle and everyday interactions they can surface leaves massive potential to keep adding to build even richer views of customers.

JF: Vish, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us and for that amazing insight.