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Data mining

Technology helps companies navigate consumer feedback in the digital age

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Print this page by Richard Foster
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Graphic by Adrienne R. Watson

When Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in 2012, outraged cell-phone customers took to social media and corporate forums, complaining that they were being billed while they were without cell service, and many also were without homes.

However, using a powerful cloud-based analytics software platform developed by Reston-based Clarabridge, one leading telecom carrier was able to respond to the potential public relations crisis.
“After seeing the high emotional content of a lot of the messages, they made the decision to pre-emptively not charge customers that were in the areas hardest hit by the hurricane,” says Clarabridge CEO and co-founder Sid Bannerjee. “Basically, you put people’s hearts and minds at rest, you limit their need to call you and you build customer loyalty.”

Clarabridge is a pioneer in the burgeoning field of customer experience management. Utilizing Clarabridge’s data-mining tools, executives from companies such as Best Buy, United Airlines, Dell and PetSmart are able to sift through the detritus of social media and many other sources of customer reactions to determine in real time whether a customer problem is developing.

For instance, during the peak holiday shopping months, Best Buy operates a war room to ensure maximum customer satisfaction. Using Clarabridge’s software, the company was able to respond quickly to customer concerns such as staffing or product inventory.

Customer experience management is a fairly new field of marketing that goes beyond customer surveys to better understand customers and what makes them continue to be loyal to a brand, company or product. The emerging marketing sector is being driven by the explosion of social media, review sites and other channels for customer interactions, along with new technologies for mining big data and sorting through unstructured records such as tweets and Facebook posts.

“Twenty years ago [customers] would have called the 800 number or complained to the store manager. Today they’re as likely to post a bad review on Yelp or leave a tweet than they are to speak to your store manager,” Bannerjee says. “The challenge is to collect all that data and make sense of it.”

Chris Little, CEO and founder of Richmond-based SingleStone Consulting, agrees. SingleStone changed its name from Dominion Digital this year to better reflect its new focus on customer experience management. The firm’s clients include Genworth Financial, Allianz, New York Life Insurance Co., MeadWestvaco and even the Virginia Department of Transportation, which has hired SingleStone to improve its customer service center interactions.

During the past three to five years, because of social media, review sites and mobile apps, “the power has shifted from corporations to customers,” Little says. “Consequently corporations are paying a whole lot more attention to customer experience.”

Previously, “if you were dissatisfied with a product, you might tell a few of your friends and your family, and that was the extent of it, but with social media, you can tell the world, and you can write reviews that influence people’s purchasing decisions, and things can go viral that can have a huge impact on a company.”

In recognition of this changing model, Bannerjee says, large companies such as The Walt Disney Co. and United Airlines have begun in recent years adding chief customer officers to ensure that “sales and support are all working towards a common goal of creating loyal customers.”

Little adds, “Customer expectations and their standards have grown considerably, and their options for switching between providers have increased. … Consequently corporations are paying a whole lot more attention to customer experience. Some companies are struggling just to meet expectations, but we believe in exceeding expectations and delighting customers. That should be the standard. If you’re not prepared to delight your customer, somebody else will. It’s just a matter of time before your customer makes the switch.”

Clarabridge’s customers track customer input through website dashboards, mobile apps and software solutions that integrate with their existing platforms such as customer interaction tracking systems or market research software.

For instance, one client, a national cellular provider, was concerned about the impact of service outages on customer retention. Clarabridge’s platform was able to determine that dissatisfaction over outages was short-lived but higher pricing packages were much more likely to cause a customer to jump ship.

“We have several hundred customers with big-brand names that use us to understand what their customers are saying, or to understand … the voice of the customer and then interpret that in a business-specific way,” says Susan Ganeshan, Clarabridge’s chief marketing officer.

For example, she says, “the voice of the customer for a high-tech firm is very different from the voice of the customer for a CPG [consumer packaged goods] products company. We interpret that data and push it out through the people in the organization who can do something useful with it. They may change a product, or they may decide to develop new products. They may decide to market the product differently or through different channels.”

With the advent of social media and mobile apps, the number of sources of customer interactions has grown dramatically in addition to traditional sources, such as call centers, and in-store feedback and bottom-of-the-receipt surveys. Clarabridge’s average customer tracks at least 25 sources of customer interactions that can yield thousands upon thousands of customer comments. Using advanced analytics tools, Clarabridge’s software platform is able to cull the most important information and identify trends from these disparate sources.

Some international corporations can log hundreds of millions of instances of customer feedback in a single year. That requires sophisticated data-mining technology that can recognize positive and negative comments, interpret Internet and cultural slang, and separate the wheat from the chaff, Ganeshan says.

Another important factor with customer experience management is brand consistency. “There are so many channels through which companies interact with their customers, so there’s a tremendous importance for consistency across those channels … and taking the full customer lifecycle into consideration.” For instance, Bannerjee cites Apple as an example of a company that offers a successful and consistent customer experience across its website, retail stores and marketing efforts.

As with the example of the Best Buy war room, it’s also more important than ever for companies to be responsive to customers. They need the technology to help them extinguish small fires before they turn into conflagrations. A corporation “might receive 500,000 tweets a day, and there might be five to 10 you have to react to immediately and the rest all have operational details that you want to be able to use to understand the trends over time,” Bannerjee says. “What we can do is give you a real quantitative proof point and identify problems that will have a real impact on whether the customer will be loyal or keep doing business with you.”

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