Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Mr. Big, Peloton, and the Differences, Risks, and Benefits of Influencers and Advocates

Photo of man in "famous" hat
I'm sure you already know the rapidly fluctuating story of exercise equipment company Peloton, the fictional Mr. Big, and actor Chris Noth. Mr. Big, Noth's character in the reboot of "Sex and the City," died after using a Peloton, and Peloton's stock took a hit. Then, in just 48 hours, Peloton produced a parody ad resurrecting Noth, and Peloton was praised widely for its agility and marketing acumen. Then days later, sexual assault accusations surfaced against Noth, and #JustLikeThat (which happens to be the name of the SITC reboot), the ad disappeared from Peloton properties.

In a single paragraph, there lies a lesson in the benefits and dangers of influencers. After the shocking episode, Peleton sought to protect their brand and redirect the conversation by leveraging Noth's considerable popularity and influence, but in so doing, they tied their brand to Noth's, a decision that rapidly backfired. Luckily, Peloton has an army of engaged advocates at its disposal.

Many marketers struggle to understand and act on the differences between influencers and advocates, which is understandable since influencers advocate for your brand, and advocates influence others to know and consider your brand. Still, the fact influencers and advocates are often lumped together by marketers is a problem because it obscures their distinct strategies, opportunities, and risks.

Advocates are fostered with authentic experiences and produce safer, lasting brand benefit

You create advocates by improving your customer experience (CX) and rousing customers to become raving fans of your brand. Advocates do a host of things that help to improve your brand's inbound marketing, reputation, and word of mouth. These include providing positive ratings for your company and product, sharing their strong product or service experiences with others, and referring prospects to your brand.

Advocacy can come organically or through a marketing program. Organic advocacy occurs when customers, without encouragement, lift your brand because they're happy and think others will benefit from the experiences you provide. Marketing programs can also boost advocacy, such as branded communities where advocates convene, loyalty programs that reward online sharing, or referral programs that compensate the referrer for providing a newly acquired customer. The more you reward your advocates for their behaviors, the less authentic it becomes (and, at some point, ethical brands will enforce rules to ensure their advocates disclose material benefits that accrue when they help your brand.) Compared to influencers, advocates are harder to create, have a longer-term impact, and present lower risks to your brand.

Advocates are nurtured, not created. You don't simply snap your fingers and produce advocates--it takes work to improve your CX and earn strong feelings of loyalty and advocacy from your customers. The brands we recognize with the largest body of customer advocates have dedicated years to improving their CX and building those strong relationships.

The benefit of investing in and building that sort of advocacy is that, long after an influencer or ad campaign concludes and is forgotten, your strong CX can still generate new advocates and advocacy. And, since an advocate is not officially tied to your brand, you are protected from your advocates' embarrassing, criminal, or unethical behaviors.

Advocates are not without their challenges beyond the fact they take time and CX commitment to foster. One is that their content and influence are less controllable by the brand. The things they say and produce come from the advocate and are generally not subject to the brand's review, guidance, or instruction. Smart brands with advocate programs can seed content and influence the things advocates share, but compared to influencer programs, encouraging advocacy requires a more gentle approach with less direct authority and leverage from the brand.

Another challenge is that your brand needs a lot of advocates to move the needle--each advocate has a small voice, but within their tighter network, they can be very influential. Gartner's research shows that while advocates may have a smaller share of interactions than influencers, they have higher engagement within their networks (see How to Build Referral and Affiliate Marketing Programs That Consumers Want to Share, subscription required).

Influencers are created with marketing programs and offer riskier and more ephemeral brand benefits

While advocates take time, care, and a robust customer experience to create, influencers can be engaged and unleashed in short periods of time with the right influencer strategy (see Build an Influencer Social Marketing Program That Delivers Results, subscription required).

Influencers could theoretically be customers, but what makes them influencers is your efforts to identify those with more significant influence, engage them, and encourage positive sharing about your brand. Influencers may be compensated for their posts and shares, but influencer strategies can reward participants in softer ways, such as access to company executives, exclusive content, or free products. (Once again, ethical marketers will ensure their influencers disclose any material relationships to their audience.)

The activities of influencers can take a variety of shapes and sizes. You can reward them for posting about your brand to their networks, sponsor their content, feature them in your advertising and promotion, or make influencers official spokespeople for your brand.

One benefit of influencers is that they can be activated more quickly and create positive engagement rapidly. You also have more control over the content and influence they produce compared to advocates. Influencer programs usually provide templates or guidelines, may cocreate content with the influencer, and frequently require prior approval before an influencer broadcasts a message about the brand.

The downside is that, once your influencer program ends, so does your positive influence. Unlike great CX, which continuously produces a stream of new advocates, influencers typically stop influencing once your program concludes.

Also, influencer programs create a more formal association between your brand and the influencer, which is one of the lessons of Peloton's experiences with Noth. The actor wasn't merely an advocate with an arms-length relationship to the brand. Peloton made him an explicit part of their brand, and thus as headlines revealed troubling accusations, the brand was forced to act as quickly to sever the relationship as it did to create it.

This example is hardly isolated—many brands have struggled to distance themselves from a variety of unpalatable, off-brand behavior and content from influencers, not the least of which is an influencer formerly associated with one brand suddenly promoting another brand. Advocates loyal to your brand and its CX are not likely to abruptly switch sides, but influencers earning money to leverage their social graphs and popularity will go to the highest bidder.

Advocates and Influencers are not mutually exclusive

In the end, a brand need not choose between advocates and influencers. Both can happily coexist under your marketing umbrella. But it is vital to recognize that, despite their similarities, advocates and influencers are quite different.

Advocates take work, but the benefits they accrue are long-lasting and substantial. Customer advocates don't just post or share about your brand--they also are loyal to your brand. The same efforts that create your advocates also create loyal customers with greater lifetime value (See Use Gartner's Buy/Own/Advocate Framework to Map Customer Journeys and Deliver Better Customer Experiences, subscription required.) Advocates are brand gifts that keep on giving, provided your customer experience stays sound.

Influencers can be deployed quickly, but the association with your brand increases risks. Peloton looked like a marketing genius for rapidly deploying a campaign with Noth, but within days he went from a top-tier influencer for Peloton to PR disaster. The goodwill the brand created with its agile marketing program was almost immediately diminished or lost. It turned into a costly exercise in the benefits and risks of leveraging the influence of others to benefit your brand.

In the end, Peloton will not just survive but thrive, not because of its influencers but because of its advocates. Have you met someone with a Peloton? Because if you have, then you know they have a Peloton. Such is the experience provided by the brand that its customers become raving fans. Chances are, what you know about Peloton is due far more to friends, family, and coworkers who extoll the virtues of the Peloton experience than it is the company's advertising and marketing.

Influencers come and go, but your customer experience and the advocates it creates are forever--provided you stay committed to listening to customers, evolving your customer experience, empowering employees to do the right thing, and deploying powerful, innovative experiences that foster strong brand relationships.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Explicit and Implicit Changes Drive Customer-Centric Culture

Many leaders try to change their corporate culture to be more customer-centric. In a recent poll of 57 CMOs, we asked the top five questions that are most urgent to bring success to the marketing department in 2022. Three of the top four answers require leaders to operationalize their customer experience (CX) data, values, and processes into their company's culture and employees’ daily jobs:
  • How can bring the voice of the customer to cross-functional business decisions (e.g., new product development, innovation)?
  • How can we ensure that brand and CX strategy are reflected in business operations?
  • How do we build a consistent brand experience across audiences and channels?

Changing culture is always a challenge. Efforts to create customer-centric change are undermined when leaders don’t implement both explicit and implicit expectations and rewards.

Explicit Customer-Centric Culture Change

Explicit expectations and rewards are the ones leaders communicate clearly and directly. Often, for example, leaders will share and promote the organization’s new CX values. Another explicit action many leaders use is to develop training programs to help employees understand CX processes and expectations. These efforts make clear the vision the leader has for the organization and its employees.

These are a good start, but one of the explicit changes leaders often fail to make is to consider the way employees are recognized and rewarded. There’s an adage that employees do what they are paid to do, not what their bosses tell them to do. Simply put, setting new customer-centric expectations for employees while changing nothing of how they’re compensated or recognized undermines the effort. For example, training call-center employees to be more empathetic with customers often brings little change if those employees continue to be rewarded more for efficiency (call handle time, call volume) than customer-centric impact (the improved satisfaction, greater trust, and reduced effort that customer-centric care can deliver.)

There has long been a debate in CX circles about the value and wisdom of compensating employees for CX outcomes. Explicitly tying bonuses or financial rewards to employee customer-centric performance requires care to mitigate challenges (such as ensuring employees cannot manipulate the results and making CX KPIs fair and accurate to each employee’s job.) But, even if your organization doesn’t tie direct financial rewards to employee CX contributions, there are still important ways to measure and reward employee performance in explicit ways. These include altering performance appraisals to consider examples of customer-centric behavior or creating recognition programs where employees can nominate each other for demonstrating customer-centric commitment.

Implicit Customer-Centric Culture Change

Often, leaders lean on explicit communications and rewards to create customer-centric change while being unaware of the implicit ways they may disincentivize customer-centric behaviors. If leaders aren’t cautious, they can send mixed signals, demanding customer-centric changes in straightforward ways while implying different values via their day-to-day decisions and actions.

If you wish to influence a customer-centric revolution in your firm or team, you must consider:
  • Have you listened to what gets in employees’ ways as they strive to achieve your explicit customer-centric goals? Asking employees to be more customer-centric without considering your organization's processes, policies, systems, and rules that prevent employees from providing a great CX is one way to disincentive customer-centric change. Another is to ignore sources of unnecessary employee effort that can lead to poor customer experience. In a recent Gartner study, we found that 66% of employees agree with the statement, “The easier it is for me to do my job, the easier it is to provide customers with an excellent experience.”
  • Do you make all or most of your decisions based on short-term ROI? It won’t matter how much you exhort employees to deliver better experiences if your actions convey you care more about immediate financial outcomes such as increased sales or reduced costs. Consider how you evaluate, prioritize and approve ideas and projects. Do your criteria match your customer-centric goals? Or does your evaluation process penalize customer-centric ideas designed to provide what customers want, need, and expect while rewarding proposals that deliver company-centric financial gains?
  • How do you speak about your business results? If you prioritize and focus only on financial outcomes and not customer impact, you implicitly convey to employees that is what you value. When I was at USAA, I once had a senior leader admonish me for providing a project update that began with the financial ROI before discussing the positive impact on the customer. “Lead with how we improved our member’s lives and relationships with USAA, then communicate how it impacted our top and bottom lines,” he told me. That statement says a lot about what he valued and, perhaps, explains a lot about what makes USAA so different, earning some of the highest NPS scores in its category.
Quote:  “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”
Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.” Over the years, that thought has been shortened into a pithy statement also attributed to Emerson: “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”

The point he makes is that we don’t convey who we are and what we value with our explicit words but our implicit actions. For leaders, that means customer-centric culture change depends on what you do, not just what you say. The ways you implicitly encourage or dampen customer-centric behaviors can do more to affect your organizational culture than all the explicit expectations you communicate.

This blog post was originally posted on Gartner's website:

Friday, June 11, 2021

The Dwindling Well of Forgiveness for Your Post-COVID Customer Experience

Photo by Marco Bianchetti on

Last March and April, as businesses struggled to implement "work from home" policies and contain service disruptions, something remarkable happened: Customer satisfaction scores rose. Clients and Voice of the Customer platforms reported that VoC scores improved quite broadly across categories and businesses.

Why would customers report more satisfaction as service quality declined? Forgiveness. As your customers fought to adapt to the new pandemic reality and saw their employers grapple with COVID-induced difficulties, they were more inclined to forgive the sorts of experiences that would have previously generated a complaint. By summer and fall, as life settled into the "new normal," NPS, CSAT, and effort scores tended to return to normal (and, in some cases, declined as brands tried to meet customers' new expectations.)

This spring, as the United States recovered from COVID, mask and business restrictions lifted, and people returned to normal--US restaurants have operated within 5% of their 2019 volumes on recent weekends--it seemed a grateful population was ready to return with a new well of forgiveness for businesses striving to adapt to post-pandemic difficulties. But I've noticed that the well of forgiveness is rapidly dwindling, and that means organizations must consider what is necessary to either get their customer experience (CX) right or to replenish their customers' well of forgiveness.

As I research and advise clients on CX best practices, I observe that brands fail to understand the full ROI of CX. As CX improves and customer loyalty is strengthened, brands will measure direct financial benefits such as improved sales, reduced churn, and increased lifetime value. Brands also often seek to measure softer benefits, such as enhanced engagement and greater WOM. But one benefit of CX is often overlooked, and that's forgiveness. Strong, consistent customer experiences earn more forgiveness. More forgiving customers are inclined to overlook isolated problems and are less likely to seek redress or share frustrations with others.

If your brand is struggling with adapting to the rapidly shifting post-pandemic world, don't ignore the problems but meet them head-on. I offer five suggestions you might consider to earn more forgiveness and loyalty on my Gartner blog. Please click here to continue reading.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Gartner Expands Its Definition of Customer Experience Management (CXM)

The word "Change"
Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash
Every now and then, there comes a time to recognize that the world has changed. My peers and I at Gartner spent several months discussing, debating, and building consensus for a change to our definition of customer experience management (CXM). Given the increase in investment in and the growing maturity of CXM programs, we felt the time had come to advance and expand our definition.

Our existing definition was, "The practice of designing and reacting to customer interactions in order to lift satisfaction, loyalty, and advocacy."

Our new definition of CXM isn't quite so succinct but does more to promote the scope, goals, and scale of enterprise-wide CXM efforts:
"CXM is the discipline of understanding customers and deploying strategic plans that enable cross-functional efforts and customer-centric culture to improve satisfaction, loyalty, and advocacy."
Our existing definition of CXM, which was over a decade old, didn't capture how the practice of CXM has evolved. We have observed many changes in how our clients approach and accomplish CXM, and these include:

  • Customer understanding: You can't design and deploy a great customer experience (CX) until you know, listen to, and understand your customers. Much of what makes CXM successful in great companies isn't about the projects they execute or the customer-facing tech they implement--it's about how they gather, analyze, and disseminate customer understanding.
  • Repeatable and ongoing discipline: Gartner's former definition called CXM a "practice," which is a habit or the application of an idea. That word didn't convey how CXM has become a constant, vital commitment firms make to improve their customer experience. CXM isn't a project, mindset, tool, or process. It's a discipline--a living, evolving, repeatable and ongoing set of capabilities that demands continuous investment, requires a system of governance, and delivers measurable outcomes.
  • Enterprise-wide strategy and collaboration: Our old definition did not reflect the scope that CXM requires to be successful. While one individual or team may have positive customer-centric practices that lead to CX improvement, a successful CXM program must inform, establish and scale these efforts across the entire organization.
  • Customer-Centric Culture: Finally, while the former definition put the focus on a CX outcome, our new definition recognizes that CXM leaders must enable change within their organization. You cannot achieve the desired goal of constantly improving CX throughout your customers' end-to-end journey unless you affect how the organization works. A strong CXM leader doesn't merely oversee individual projects that positively impact customer satisfaction, loyalty, and advocacy; they must influence everyone within the organization to change how they work in a way that results in improved customer satisfaction, loyalty, and advocacy.
Our new CXM definition aligns with Gartner's CX maturity framework. By design, it is intended to reflect the nine elements of CX maturity (voice of the customer, customer research, personas and journeys, strategy, technology, roles and governance, customer-centric culture, purpose, and metrics). If you're a Gartner client, you can learn more about the revised CXM definition, how it can help bring consistency to the understanding of CXM in your organizations, and how to mature your CXM programs by reading "Use Gartner’s New Definition of Customer Experience Management to Align to CX Scope and Goals."