The pandemic has reshaped our economy and our culture, accelerating the shift towards digital channels for both B2B and B2C customer communications. While the suddenness of this transition has created considerable challenges, the trend has opened up new opportunities for the marketing organization.
On one side, businesses are seeking guidance as they navigate this new digital landscape. On the other, customers are seeking deeper and more supportive relationships with the brands they trust. At the center, marketing has emerged as the discipline best positioned to serve the needs of both constituents. Equipped with advanced technical skills and the deepest connection to the customer, marketing is poised to deliver a new approach to CX—the marketing-led customer experience.
Interest in CX has risen consistently over the years: as a Google search term, its popularity has quadrupled since 2004.
The concept of a marketing-led customer experience, however, is much newer. It was only in 2016 that a survey of CMOs revealed that 86% believed that they would own the end-to-end customer experience in a few short years. In 2017, when we first explored the theme in our 2017 book, Change Agents: The Radical Role of Tomorrow's CMO, few other marketers were talking about marketing's potential to transform the customer experience. In some ways a logical evolution of traditional CX, it is also a radical departure, and one that has the potential to dramatically change the role of marketing within the organization.
In this article, we'll look at how the marketing-led customer experience is defined, why marketing has emerged as the discipline best positioned to lead the next evolution of CX, and how this new approach will impact the organization. We'll also provide tips to help marketing leaders gain buy-in and operationalize the marketing-led customer experience within their organization.
The marketing-led customer experience is a new approach that elevates marketing to the role of customer champion, journey creator and experience innovator.
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Defining the marketing-led customer experience (MLCX)
The marketing-led customer experience is a new approach that elevates marketing to the role of customer champion, journey creator and experience innovator. When marketing-led customer experience is implemented successfully in an organization, the customer takes the leading role in determining their journey. They create the roadmap and the organization is the facilitator, there to serve up a frictionless and satisfying learning, evaluating, or buying experience. Marketing, as the primary voice of the customer and owner of customer-facing technology, optimizes every customer interaction in every channel using technology, data, and content to deliver brand-defining, personalized experiences at scale and throughout the journey.
The way companies manage CX has always been fragmented and disjointed—and that has impacted the experience negatively.
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How MLCX differs from traditional CX
The customer experience as a concept and a discipline has existed for decades, but it has grown independently across multiple business functions, including customer service, customer support, operations, advertising, and product. As a result, the way companies manage CX has been far too fragmented and disjointed—and that has impacted the experience negatively.
For example, sales only owns the customer experience for the brief but crucial period between "sales accepted lead" and "closed won," at which point the customer enablement team takes over and owns the experience until the customer is onboarded. Then the customer success team takes up the reins until it's time for renewal, at which point sales takes over again. At every hand-off point, there is a risk that critical customer insights will get lost and expectations missed, essential brand elements will be missed or misapplied, and core values will be overlooked or misinterpreted. In today’s B2B environment, this siloed approach has to be synthesized and managed from the customer perspective.
MLCX is a way of connecting the dots by assigning marketing the task of orchestrating the available technology and leveraging data and content to facilitate the journey the customer takes across different organizational functions.
For the customer, it results in a more cohesive and intuitive experience. For the organization, it results in a clear line of sight from the customer's first interaction to its last and beyond, which in turn enables them to optimize revenue and market insights.
Marketing touches customers first, interacts with them more frequently, and supports them across a longer stretch of the journey.
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Why marketing is the logical CX "owner"
Orchestrating cross-functional customer touchpoints is the key to elevating the customer experience. But why should marketing lead the charge? Why not customer support, sales, or one of the many other customer-facing functions?
There are several factors that make marketing the logical choice.
First, marketing has always been the discipline with the most holistic view of the customer. While other customer-facing functions such as sales, product, and support all have a unique perspective on the customer, marketing touches customers first, interacts with them more frequently, and supports them across a longer stretch of the journey.
Second, marketing is the only customer-facing function with a seat at the executive table. A CMO is the only true voice of the customer at this level, and the only person with the influence and authority to secure the budget and buy-in for ambitious CX initiatives.
Marketing has always been the discipline with the most holistic view of the customer.
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And finally, marketing is equipped with the two key capabilities that ensure a responsive, aligned customer experience: the ability to listen to the customer and the means to turn that information into actionable outputs that the organization can use to shape the journey. Because of the role they play, marketers have invested in digital listening tools (and the digital skills required to manage them) that enable them to collect customer feedback at scale, including social media monitoring and behavioral monitoring. They also have the ability to take that information and shape it into customer insights and actionable outputs that the organization can use to continually improve the experience.
This natural affinity has already resulted in a movement to shift responsibility for CX to the marketing function. In 2016, 86% of CMOs believed that they would own the end-to-end customer experience by 2020.
The following year, a Forrester report showed that 38% of global marketing decision makers had indeed assumed primary responsibility for their organization's CX. A more recent survey found that by 2019, 45% of marketing teams had assumed total ownership of the customer experience. While these numbers are a far cry from the confident prediction made in 2016, they indicate a steadily growing recognition within the organization that marketing is the logical owner of its CX function.
38% of global marketing decision makers have already assumed primary responsibility for their organization’s CX.
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Why now is the time for marketers to lead CX
The marketing mission and the CX mission are one and the same: to understand, anticipate, and fulfill the needs of the customer. While it has taken time for organizations to recognize the synergies, the trend toward MLCX has started to pick up speed because of three critical factors.
Digital skill acquisition.
Over the past decade, marketing has evolved into a digital discipline, and with that, marketers have accumulated years of technical competency. Marketing leaders and practitioners now have the confidence and familiarity they need to select, implement, and manage an array of technologies that touch, serve, and collect insights from customers. Today's marketing teams are staffed with martech architects, digital brand managers, and data analysts, and the marketing function is now one of the biggest technology buyers within an organization. And along with hard skills, marketing has also had time to hone the soft skills required to manage these cross-functional teams effectively.
According to Gartner research, CMOs outspend CIOs on technology, and they're more likely to lead a digital transformation. More than any other role, marketers are ready for the challenge of turning customer data into meaningful customer experiences.
Digital skills within the marketing organization have matured, and—if we may be so bold—they now equal or even surpass the technical prowess of IT and R&D—and so have the technologies that enhance the customer experience. The first wave of customer listening tools arrived in the early 2000s. Today, those listening and analytic technologies have matured significantly. From artificial intelligence to predictive analytics to sentiment analysis to data lakes, the marketing mission is now supported by some of the most advanced technologies available in any organizational function.
Martech stack expansion.
CX continues to be negatively affected by the effect of organizational silos that fragment the customer journey, but the lion's share of the experience has gradually shifted to the marketing stack—especially in B2B. One Forrester estimate suggested that B2B buyers travel 75%–90% of the way through their journey before they move from marketing to sales. And even there, marketing often manages the enablement tools that support sales outreach. In some cases, the martech stack also includes chat functions, customer service and success platforms, and advocacy, loyalty, and referral tools. Marketers now have 8,000 marketing technologies to choose from, all of which guide, enrich, personalize, predict, orchestrate, and optimize the customer experience in some way. As the marketing stack continues to grow, it will continue to annex and consolidate a greater portion of the customer experience.
Not only are these technologies more powerful and sophisticated, but they have also become more affordable and accessible, bringing them within reach of smaller organizations and enabling marketers to manage them without reliance on IT.
The marketing mission and the CX mission are one and the same: to understand, anticipate, and fulfill the needs of the customer.
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The Business Impact of Enhanced CX
The ROI on CX is significant, and as more and more of the customer relationship unfolds across digital channels, it has supported the ability to measure that ROI with precision. This has coincided with the increasing digitization of the B2B buyer journey, where, according to Salesforce, 61% of transactions now start online. The ability to cross-reference customer engagement data with recorded revenue has enabled a growing number of companies to tie CX to business or financial metrics. According to a Gartner survey conducted in 2017, only 48% of survey respondents had calculated the business or financial value of improving CX. In 2019, that percentage had climbed to 75%.
As CX has become more measurable, the business impact has become clear: better CX results in higher customer retention, revenues, margins, and returns.
Salesforce research revealed that 67% of B2B customers have switched vendors because they wanted a more consumer-like experience.
Data from A.T. Kearney confirms that when companies provide personalized, seamless experiences, they generate an average revenue growth of 8.1%—twice the rate of competitors with less-developed digital platforms. Similarly, a Bain & Company analysis shows that companies that deliver excellent customer experiences grow revenues 4%–8% above their market.
Bain & Company research proves that B2B CX leaders have average higher margins than their competitors, with reductions of 10% to 20% in cost to serve.
A 2019 study by Watermark that cross-referenced company stock performance with CX capabilities found that CX leaders generated returns that were nearly three times greater than those of CX laggards.
Companies that deliver excellent customer experiences grow revenues 4%–8% above their market.
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The obstacles facing MLCX in B2B
While the maturation of marketing skills and customer technologies are propelling MLCX forward, there are still challenges for B2B marketers to overcome. According to a McKinsey study, B2B customer-experience index ratings significantly lag behind those of retail customers: while B2C companies typically score in the 65%–85% range, B2B companies average less than 50%.
The B2C effect.
Consumers whose expectations have been shaped by eCommerce titans like Amazon, Zappos, Shopify, and Apple are bringing those standards with them as they research and evaluate products in a B2B setting. According to a 2018 Salesforce survey, 69% of B2B customers expect Amazon-like buying experiences.
However, B2B marketers have been slow to recognize the potential of B2C CX on their own ability to generate and support pipeline. As a result, many B2B marketers need to learn fast and act quickly to catch up with the needs and expectations of their customers.
69% of B2B customers expect Amazon-like buying experiences.
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Theory into practice.
Because the concept of MLCX in a business context is so new, the conversation is largely being driven by analysts and thought leaders. These high-level discussions are exhilarating, but they can leave marketers struggling to connect the dots between the theory and the execution. The impact of MLCX is complex and far-ranging: the next phase will need to focus on practical guidance that enables marketers to identify the steps and develop a decision-making lens that enables them to use these concepts to drive strategy and execution.
Some of the greatest barriers to the adoption of MLCX are those that exist within the organization. There will always be a general resistance to change that can make it difficult to get a new initiative off the ground. Territoriality and internal politics can also hinder the success of a cross-functional endeavor. On the technology side, a lack of integration across the technology stack and siloed data sources can take considerable resources to remedy. While none of these obstacles is insurmountable, marketing leaders need to be realistic about the levels of effort required to address them.
Paving the Way for MLCX
MLCX is new territory for many B2B organizations, and it's an ambitious goal that no marketer can achieve alone. While it begins and ends with marketing, it touches virtually every business function and needs to be supported by employees at every level. To set a foundation for success, marketing leaders need to make a persuasive, data-driven case for the initiative, tie it to organizational objectives, and get everyone in the organization to buy in.
Lay the groundwork.
To create a convincing case for MLCX, you will need to prove that you have a marketing stack that's capable of generating meaningful, accurate, and trustworthy data about the customer at scale. Address any data quality issues that may reduce the credibility of your data so that you can build your case confidently.
As part of the process, identify the metrics that will be most meaningful in creating a correlation between CX improvements and revenue increases. For example, CX metrics might include the customer churn rate, Net Promoter Score, increased upsell revenue, larger contracts, and renewal rates. For revenue impact, you might look at a reduction in the time to close or an increase in the percentage of opportunities that close. Keep in mind that to conduct this type of analysis, marketing needs to gain access to a broader collection of customer data and break down the silos that prevent data from flowing between systems.
In addition to using your own data, collect external proof points, such as case studies, that demonstrate the impact of CX enhancements on revenue. Where B2B examples are unavailable, seek out B2C equivalents that align with your industry, company size, and business challenges.
Keep in mind that your CEO is the most important person to convince. MLCX needs strong support from the top down, so frame everything in terms of the revenue acceleration, revenue growth, and organizational efficiency that your CEO, and the shareholders they serve, care about most.
Identify the metrics that will be most meaningful in creating a correlation between CX improvements and revenue increases.
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Socialize the concept.
MLCX only works when everyone in the organization—from the executives to the front lines—understands the impact they have on the customer experience. Don't forget the important back-office functions like finance, operations, and HR. They need to understand that what they do impacts the customer experience as much as marketing, sales and service. Invoicing, scheduling, training—they all contribute to the way the customer experiences the brand.
That sense of direct responsibility for the customer experience needs to permeate at every level and become part of the cultural DNA. President Kennedy's tour of the NASA Space Center presents a classic example: he asked a janitor carrying a broom, "What do you do here?" and the janitor answered, "I'm helping to put a man on the moon, Mr. President."
The Future of CX—The Future of Marketing
This is an exciting and pivotal moment for CX and for marketing leaders. MLCX promises to not only elevate the experience for customers, but also to resolve some of the most frustrating and persistent barriers that marketing faces—including organizational silos and revenue attribution.
With the CX function radiating from the marketing function, marketers have an opportunity to align more closely with sales, product, and other business functions to build a more efficient and aligned organization. Revenue attribution and insights are another natural outcome of a unified and coordinated customer experience, as is overall revenue growth.
For at least a decade, the customer experience has been steadily migrating to the digital channels that marketing knows best, and that migration is now accelerating due to the impact of the pandemic on the way we live and work. According to recent data from Wunderman Thompson, the number of B2B buyers who bought directly from salespeople declined by 28% since the onset of the coronavirus outbreak.
The time is now for marketing to take the lead in delivering meaningful, supportive experiences to their organization's customers. In the midst of uncertainty, companies are looking for solutions to some of the biggest market challenges they’ve faced in decades, while B2B customers seek to build relationships with businesses that understand their needs and demonstrate a commitment to serving them better. Marketing leaders who take the initiative in helping both parties find a better way forward have an opportunity to dramatically transform the possibilities for their careers, their organizations, and the markets they serve.