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Customer Experience and the “Next Best Action” Dilemma

By Augie Ray | September 12, 2018 | 2 Comments

MarketingCustomer Experience

As an analyst covering customer experience, I am often briefed by multichannel, personalization, and marketing automation platforms. Many promise to help brands improve their customer experience by identifying and executing the “next best action” for each of their individual customers. The idea, in theory, is that your brand can improve its customer experiences and relationships by performing the one next best action at the best time in the best channel, providing one-to-one, personalized brand experiences at scale. But the reality is often quite a bit different.

The challenge with the concept of “next best action” lies in a simple dilemma: Who is that action designed to help most–the customer or the brand? This challenge is easy to see from the outside looking in but difficult to recognize when your performance appraisal, raise, bonus or job depends on you producing rapid business or economic outcomes. To uncover and resolve the dilemma of “next best action,” ask three simple questions:

  • The next best action to what end?
  • The next best action to produce what measurable outcome?
  • And, finally, the next best action for whom?

By using these three questions, you may find that the goal of these platforms and their “next best action” functionality is not to improve customer experience but to lift brands’ short-term sales and marketing results. The two are not mutually exclusive, but as we explore these three questions, it becomes easy to see how prioritizing the former before the latter can do more to undermine than enhance your brand’s customer experience.

Why do it: To what end?  

Rarely in life is there a single “next best action” that fits every possible end. Consider your Monday morning as the alarm goes off. Sleeping in may leave you feeling fresher and more rested throughout your day; getting up early to exercise will improve both your mood and your health; and taking your early hours to rehearse your big presentation may reduce your stress and enhance job performance. So, which is the proper “next best action”? That depends on which of your priorities is most important.

So, when your brand invests six or seven figures in a platform and program to produce “next best actions,” why do you do it? What is your priority? Is it to provide immediate business outcomes? To convince customers your brand cares? To enhance and improve your customers’ lives? Your next best action will be quite a bit different depending on which of these you elect to emphasize.

What do you want: To produce what measurable outcome?

When you ask a client or vendor why they want to execute a “next best action,” it can seem to them to be so self-evident as to be ridiculous. But the question may seem a lot less crazy if you explore the KPIs they use to measure their programs. If you want to know what business executives really care about, look at what they measure.

In pitch after pitch, I see presentations from platforms offering “next best action” functionality that is justified solely based on inbound traffic, sales, conversion rate, and financial ROI. It is hard to fault a vendor for demonstrating hard and attributable ROI, but by definition, customer experience is about something else: Improving customer satisfaction, loyalty, and advocacy. While increasing clicks, engagement and sales are great lagging and coincident measures of brand success, improving customer perception is a leading indicator of future brand health.

Ultimately, if improving customer experience is your goal, then it is crucial you measure how your next best action delivers on customer expectations, wants and needs and not just your own. If all of your measures are aligned to how the brand benefits and none of them consider how customer satisfaction, perception or intent is altered, then you cannot claim your program is designed to improve the customer’s experience.

Who benefits: For whom?

One argument I have heard is that any engagement is good engagement–that any “next best action” that is offered and acted upon is a de facto sign of customer acceptance and benefit. That is hogwash because the signals we use to evaluate customer acceptance are incomplete and far from entirely accurate. For example, how many of your ad clicks, particularly on mobile, are errant and mistaken? Is every “open” of a marketing email a sign of your happiness, or have you opened emails to find that the subject line misleading? Have you ever seen a brand’s post in social media only to reply with criticism rather than with support and praise? Have you ever clicked on an offer for some free content only to find the offer came with so many strings that you were left feeling it was downright misleading?

It shouldn’t need to be said that not every customer engagement is positive, nor is it always easily apparent what is positive and what is harmful. For example, Cerebri AI, a customer experience platform, worked with a client to evaluate the impact of service reminders sent to customers. While some customers responded to the reminder, leaving the brand to assume its alert was welcome and working, Cerebri AI found that the service reminder had zero or negative impact on 64% of customers.

The fact that a few customers may respond, click or buy in response to your offer does not mean that your strategy might not be damaging your brand relationship with many more. The way to tell the difference between brand-building and brand-harming “next best actions” is not to merely to count clicks or measure sales but to measure the impact on customer satisfaction, loyalty, and advocacy.

If all of this is not yet clear, then flip the perspective and think of yourself as a customer with hundreds upon hundreds of brands in your life, each of them desperately wanting to get you to engage, click, shop and buy. What is the “next best action” you want from your antiperspirant, gasoline, bread and soda pop brands? Is it to send you a piece of content, make you an offer, send another marketing email message, or push yet another ad that interrupts your web surfing? Or is it to leave you the hell alone?

I’m not proposing your brand do nothing simply because your customers are overtaxed, flooded with marketing messages, and increasingly distrustful of brand messaging, but your “next best action” better darn well take that into consideration. And therein lies the essential dilemma with “next best action.” Unless you do it to improve, for and measured from the perspective of the customer, your desire to engage can merely become another reason for customers to tune out or, worse yet, unsubscribe, delete your app, mark your email as spam, and abandon your brand.

If you measure your “next best action” based on how it improves customers’ satisfaction, loyalty, and brand advocacy and not just whether it earns clicks and conversions, you will improve your customer experience and your long-term brand health. Take a hard look at your goals and KPIs for your “next best action” strategy, and ask yourself for whom you’re doing it. It may be that your selfish intent is more evident to your customers than it is to you.

The Gartner Blog Network provides an opportunity for Gartner analysts to test ideas and move research forward. Because the content posted by Gartner analysts on this site does not undergo our standard editorial review, all comments or opinions expressed hereunder are those of the individual contributors and do not represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management.

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  • Thanks for this article Augie. It gave me clarity on an issue I am grappling with.
    A timely intervention.
    Richard Chawke

  • Mark Smith says:

    Great stuff Augie

    I always say you can spot the vendors who really care about the customer because they say “best next action” not “next best action”. “Next best” sounds like second best, and the key is to truly focus on what is “best” – with multiple objective measures and a prioritization capability that covers long-term customer value. Easier said than done – but that’s no reason not to start.