Preserving Humanity in Customer Marketing

We love new technology at Point of Reference. And being in the Salesforce.com partner ecosystem means we have a steady stream of new “toys” to leverage for clients. So, when Salesforce announced ChatGPT for Slack we were ecstatic. Generative AI has been on our radar since the middle of 2022. By the time this announcement came out we had been contemplating a wide variety of applications for AI in our customer marketing domain. Imagine, you just received a request to use a customer not yet in your program for an advocate activity. ChatGPT for Slack would allow you to ask if that company has any open support cases, what their spend history has been over the last three years, and when their contract renews…and get a cogent, concise answer based on your company’s Salesforce data! How about a quick ChatGPT question concerning when an advocate was last used and for what type of activity? Needless to say, ChatGPT is only as good as the data, but provided it’s reliable, this will be a leap forward to retrieving data.

One thing that exercise made clear was that we have never considered a customer marketing world where relationships weren’t at the center. Every feature we design considers deeply how the humans involved (customer, customer marketer, customer success manager, account executive, etc.) factor in. There’s always an analog equivalent to the digital manifestation.

What we do in customer marketing, though in a business context, is so personal. We ask customers to allocate time, stake their reputation and invest emotionally in us. In the early iteration of Point of Reference, we interviewed our client’s advocates about their customer experiences to create advocate content for sellers’ use. What came through loud and clear in the pre-interview banter was that the customer agreed to be interviewed because of their sales rep, account manager or consultant. It was, without exception, always about the relationship. The customer felt well-cared for and wanted to express their gratitude.

Customer marketers, particularly those who manage customer communities, put a lot of energy into inventing ways to make advocates feel special. We see this within our customer base, and read about it from some of the content creators in our space like Mary Green, Leslie Barrett, Alison Bukowski, Valeria Gomez and agencies like Captivate Collective. This is how we show our gratitude to advocates who invest in a relationship with us. I relate to this type of customer marketer – they get the power of relationships. And that goes for how they think about relationships with internal stakeholders as well.

If the designated customer marketer doesn’t thrive on cultivating and sustaining relationships, then perhaps there’s a better fit elsewhere in the marketing organization (analysis, operations, demand gen, digital). If that marketer’s end goal is to have as little contact as possible with advocates and internal stakeholders by automating every touchpoint, every ask, every reward, then you have a transactional, superficial customer marketing operation, not to be confused with a program. And you’re leaving a lot of goodwill and value to the organization on the table.

There are plenty of places where a relationship can be replaced with automation. Think: ATMs, restaurant reservations, and parking kiosks. But, I place a high value on relationships when it comes to healthcare, insurance and legal related stuff. They’re personal in nature, and not the parts of life where you want to feel like a number or a QR code.

Algorithms and various forms of automation can generate system generated notifications, but they certainly don’t make us feel special. In fact, they mess up just enough (wrong information, bad assumptions, wrong timing) that I’m often quick to ignore or discard them, with a little disgust thrown in.

Customer marketing done well is relationship-intensive. That’s different than labor-intensive, which can be largely solved by practical, intelligent automation. The question in relationship-intensive fields is How do we deepen, expand and elevate relationships? Not, How do we avoid people and still get what we want? The latter may be tempting to an efficiency zealot more comfortable with technology than people. They lose sight of the humanity part of what we do.

Take a common “ask” a customer marketer makes of an advocate. We believe this simple act is full of nuance and that human intelligence plays an important role. First, should the ask even be made? Is the advocate on leave of absence? Are they knee-deep in an internal project? Are they the right advocate? Do they have the necessary perspective, history and expertise for the need? Who is asking? The one making the ask will have a lot to do with the answer.

How would you feel if that ask came quite obviously from a system rather than a person? What if AI could pretty well fake a human ask, but then flubs the interaction a few steps later, exposing the ruse? What was a personal interaction just became a social faux pas—with one of your best customers! The motivation to help is lost because the relationship has been devalued. Didn’t take much to wipe out any accrued goodwill.

That’s not an attractive vision to us. It’s not what’s so alluring and gratifying about customer marketing, where true magic happens in business relationships. So, consider the role of relationships in customer marketing as all forms of new and titillating AI applications flood our world. Assist us? Yes. Substitute for humanity? That’s a hard no. We are in a business that’s powered by relationships, first and foremost. It will be a long time before AI gets the emotional quotient (EQ) part right, if ever.

As we incorporate generative AI and predictive analytics into our customer marketing solution, we won’t allow the glitter of these technologies to ever blind us to what’s at the core of our mission: relationships.