There’s a shift in the winds. Recently my clients began shifting their focus (and my time) more to implementation planning for customer-centric marketing efforts. In this planning, the discussion has centered more on the challenges and barriers to successful execution than on analysis or evaluation. These implementation challenges are critical to achieving ROI for the project. And ROI, as we discussed previously, is the “ticket” to management buy-in, increased funding and rollout.

Let me explain what I mean by a customer- centered marketing effort. This term refers to a marketing effort designed to change existing customers’ behavior in some quantifiable, measurable way. These efforts usually involve some sort of direct-to-customer (D2C) communications and can include both communications and incentives to change behavior. While companies normally communicate frequently with customers, this effort is targeted at a specific customer group with personalized communications designed to spur action. These efforts are usually preceded by a customer-level analysis that describes current and predicted future customer behavior and identifies growth opportunities for different customer groups. Such analysis becomes the foundation for the strategy and targeting of the D2C marketing effort described in this article.

I have noticed a trend among companies to begin to focus on implementation hurdles earlier, often during the customer analysis process. While this activity can make simple tasks more complex, it is best to deal with the “down and dirty” issues as soon as possible. The reason that managers focus on implementation realities is that they are forced, often for the first time, to actually “sign up” for those results to support the customer analysis investment. With their names on the line, you can bet they will make sure their teams are also committed to making those results happen. And when you ask team members to go on record for potential results, then reality begins to raise its ugly head.

As these commitment conversations progress, issues emerge that were not addressed previously. While you may believe that these issues are related to dysfunctional corporate cultures, I can assure you that the same topics have occurred consistently across both supportive and destructive cultures. You may think that these issues occur solely among poor performing employees in those companies. Again, while that may appear intuitively correct, actual experience suggests that stronger performers have even a more complete grasp of issues and bring them up emphatically.

The issues that can derail customer-centric marketing implementation are, in fact, the same issues that can derail any new initiative. That new approach must still, in most cases, occur inside the company – that same bureaucratic, siloed, political, employee-indulging company. Transitioning the new initiative to work inside the company, while still keeping its newness, its freshness, is an art more than a science. Leaders who can execute while addressing those issues are the executives of the future.

Issues that involve interdepartmental coordination, business process, approvals and priority setting – all issues that can clearly derail the best-meaning customer effort – appear out of the blue as mission critical. Identifying these types of roadblocks and addressing them preemptively can often make the difference between success and a finger-pointing train wreck later. Let’s examine these issues and potential resolution strategies that can help ensure that your effort “gets to the plate and has a decent swing at the ball.” Then I will describe some strategies to assure that your swing results in at least a base hit.

1. Coordination

One universal, mission- critical implementation roadblock is interdepartmental coordination. Whether the execution involves creative development and production, sales training, merchandising, the call center, etc., other departments clearly must have some ownership for a customer-driven marketing effort to succeed. The line management team, who has the actual responsibility, must ensure that the new approach is consistently communicated to the rest of the organization and ultimately to the end customer. The front-line teams are often given little information, rationale or background prior to discovering at the last minute that they must execute a program that has existed for months.

Potential issue resolution appears simple at first: determine who owns executional responsibility and integrate the customer-focused marketing effort into their near-term timetables. However, those groups are likely to drag their heels unless they can see direct benefits for their teams, not just for senior management. While they may not oppose the initiative outright, those constituents can bog down the effort and steer it to disaster. The key is to involve them early, demonstrate a benefit to their teams and their internal clients (if they have any) and then to prototype the effort as quickly as possible to discover any roadblocks that could derail an actual test.

2. Process-Related Delays

Process-related delays can plague projects, particularly when those delays have not been incorporated into the timelines that provide management with milestones and revenue expectations. The issue here is not the fact that program execution requires multiple development stages. For example, before sales training can occur, training materials must be created and approved, trainers and facilities scheduled, and salespeople must be booked to attend training. Each of those steps is real and justified and also difficult to circumvent, although each can be accelerated with sufficient management support and a champion’s willpower.

Rather, the challenge occurs when a specific process step becomes delayed. For example, a key player can be out of town, or unrelated workloads can suddenly become so excessive that no project work can be completed. The only way to address these issues is to identify them up front and develop contingency plans. Because it is not possible to anticipate everything, enlisting sponsors can also help minimize process-related delays. For example, escalation and alternative execution paths can be outlined up front, as a precaution, and then implemented later, if needed, to help keep a project close to on track. 

3. Shifting Priorities

Another challenge that can derail customer-focused marketing initiatives is constantly shifting priorities. As companies search for opportunities in this tough economy, the temptation can be to shift priorities quickly to capitalize on perceived marketplace opportunities. The result can be a twofold plunge – first, executional groups can stall commitment since they perceive that a new higher priority will soon emerge, and second, that management can indeed change their priorities for the “flavor of the month.”

Now, no one today would suggest that companies should not move quickly to seize opportunities when they emerge. Few companies are willing to sacrifice incremental revenue or margin when numbers are tough to make each quarter. However, short term and long term plans must be balanced for a company to not just survive but prosper. In addition, since customer-focused marketing is measurement-centered, this initiative is more likely to survive a reprioritization than others. 

Counterintuitively, the more accountable customer-centered marketing promises to be, the more likely it is to remain on the priority list. By having timetables, not just for execution, but also written commitment for delivery of financial benefit, the team has effectively related investment to measurement. While that approach does not guarantee success, it does have a halo effect of financial implications that can increase chances for survival.

After You Get to the Plate

After a customer-centric marketing effort addresses these implementation hurdles, additional strategies can enhance the chance for success. A strategy for ensuring correct budgeting is positioning the effort as a pilot program. Often pilots are expected to be profitable in their own right – a mistaken notion, I think. A pilot is expected to prove out the business case for a rollout, not be the rollout itself. When lower quantities are produced and creative developed for multiple versions, the pilot costs will often be higher than the rollout on a percentage basis. By ensuring that a pilot is treated as a pilot and the results projected appropriately, the effort will have the greatest chance of success.

Another success-enhancing strategy is to vary incentives substantially, including a no-brainer offer at the highest end. Frequently, sustained volume from the highest-end offers pays out incentives that could be considered unprofitable in the short term. Also, by evaluating different levels of ROI, response curves can be developed better, and the elasticity of return developed. This analysis would permit the marketing team to specifically calibrate offers to maximize potential ROI.

A third strategy is to specifically select target the highest propensity customers as a unique segment of the test effort. True, those customers will only form part of the target for any rollout program. However, one of the goals of the pilot is to determine whether customers can change their behaviors at all in response to the customized communications and incentives. The high-propensity segments are the most likely to show if the program can “move the needle.” If the results are positive, then they can be used for modeling response across the target base.

The Last Mile

Clearly, connecting the dots and delivering on a customer-centric marketing effort is extremely challenging and vulnerable to failure. However, by identifying, planning for and addressing potential roadblocks while utilizing success-enhancing strategies, your team will have the best luck at achieving desired results. Remember, the hardest part of a customer-centric marketing effort is not the analysis (which is challenging in its own right). Rather, the biggest challenges lie in working through the systems, people and processes to execute those programs within your organization. Only by doing that can you drive home the chances of success.

Next month, I will discuss outsourcing marketing resources and programs, another more dramatic approach to addressing this problem.

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