To Olympia this morning for a quiet Adtech London conference, where despite the evident impact of - yes it's still there - the recession on attendance, we had a very lively and enlightening session on customer experience.
I moderated, with the iron grip they expect from me, and on the excellent panel were Lawrence Merritt of Photobox, Matthew Cashmore of Lonely Planet, David Chalmers of Cisco and Benjamin Braun of British Gas.
Our focal points - which (see iron grip above …) mapped neatly across the key strategic emphases of the panelists, were a) where does customer experience - and its associated benefit, customer engagement - now live in business and brand strategy, b) how does that proceed to play out in terms of the way experience is viewed and managed and c) what approaches to measurement are being adopted?
Without going into too much detail on individual points made - all very succinctly and credibly expressed of course - the following headlines emerged.
First of all, where, till relatively recently, customer experience was just a problem for customer service divisions, it's now - certainly across all the panelists - perceived at the highest levels in the business as a critical driver of marketing and sales value.
For Photobox and Cisco, the medium is to an overwhelming extent, the message, and not only is their brand equity overwhelmingly held in customer tribes, but remarkably high percentages of revenue - with, one gathered, highly efficient cost levels - are achieved with astute leveraging of both experience and engagement.
Lawrence stressed Photobox's lack of dependence on traditional forms of advertising and its corresponding focus on customer advocacy - what some are calling "earned media" if you like - to drive both brand awareness and hard sales.
For British Gas, a brand with a number of unsurprising challenges, in that customer experience has been - especially around service and billing - till recently so ill-regarded that positive engagement of any kind has been out of the question, a fresh range of online and mobile service initiatives are clearly and meaningfully reversing the experience trend, directly empowering the customer, and establishing both control and clarity to replace the previous sense of murky disinterest. One was struck by the common sense pragmatism and - key element of all experience programs - Utility (OK no pun intended) of the activities Benjamin outlined.
Second, a rigorous and attentive approach to the management and refinement of customer experience - and, critically, processes for the recognition and reward of value-adding customer engagement - feature highly in all successful experience strategies
For Lonely Planet - a bold innovator from their DNA on out - the engagement IS, to a large extent, the business. Matthew reminded the audience that the publisher's earliest days were peppered with thousands of copies of their guides mailed back to them by passionate (not to mention engaged …) users with scores of corrections and additions hot from the field.
The brand is carrying that focus into all its threads of activity, as their customer base shifts from real to, if you like, virtual backpackers whose concern is less "How do I get there and where can I lie down?", more "How can this location provide the depth and relavance of overall experience I seek from leisure travel?" Matthew also talked in some detail about the attention devoted to testing and refining even the most trivial elements of, say, a web page to ensure that the online experience is as rewarding and engaging as possible.
David talked about the very effective recognition and reward dynamics among passionate Cisco users, to the extent that many of the businesses most valued support teams and even sales people … are customers too.
Third, and perhaps from my own point of view most essential, all of these very diverse operations are, at a gratifyingly high level, acknowledging in their expressed strategies and activities, that the customer really DOES own the brand, and that they - indeed all of us - ignore the impact of customer engagement and the role of customer experience, no longer as a chore, but as a core builder of competitive advantage, at our peril.