While digital transformation has been a topic of conversation in the business world for several years now, it's still early days for the majority of enterprises, according to Neal Sharma, co-founder and CEO of digital agency DEG, Linked by Isobar. Put another way: Much work remains.
In this exclusive interview with CMO.com, Sharma talks about what digital transformation actually means, what it takes to reach digital maturity, and the move toward contextually relevant storytelling.
CMO.com: How do you define digital transformation?
Sharma: Digital transformation is the recognition that the customer is at the center of all business activity. Therefore, the way you reach the customer is a rapidly evolving landscape of different media. This applies to everything from the back office, through the mid office, all the way to the front office. Brands have to profoundly change the way they connect with the customer and the way they think about the customer's experience.
I think a lot of times companies define digital transformation as the move from traditional to digital. But it really is more than that. Instead, it is very much about the orientation to the customer and their experience.
CMO.com: Where do you think most companies are in their digital transformation journeys?
Sharma: We have a maturity model that we use at DEG, Linked by Isobar, and we have found that the majority are in the exploring or piloting stage. There are some that are beginning to scale various aspects of their way of enriching the customer experience, but there's nobody that I would argue is terribly mature. And because the landscape changes so fast and so often, I think it's going to be complicated for anybody in the relative near term to credibly state that they are mature in this journey.
CMO.com: Are you seeing a common focus among companies?
Sharma: We see clients are trying to implement personalization and one-to-one marketing at scale, especially in the down-funnel communications. They are focusing on being more contextually relevant and on telling their story in different ways to ensure it appeals to customers that they are speaking with.
CMO.com: What kind of foundation does a company need to build first to achieve personalization at scale?
Sharma: First, I think they have to develop an internal culture that prioritizes the customer. And that isn't as prevalent as you would think. It seems like it's a very common-sense notion to understand your customer, understand what their expectations are, really empathize with their experience, and then build your services and your messaging around that. But that is still a pretty significant gap inside many organizations.
Once a customer-oriented culture is established, there does need to be some structural and organizational alignment. So there has to be people who are accountable for the customer journey and working to ensure every aspect of the company is aligned that way. There are a lot of brands who will pay lip service to the customer experience, but it is less common to find executives accountable to delivering an elevated one.
Customer data must also be easily accessible, centralized, secured, and continuously learning for an organization to scale its personalization efforts. A customer is not defined solely by their data, but without data you cannot truly understand your customer. The data needs to continually accumulate, refine, and learn in real time, so that you can activate on it in the moment.
And the last thing one needs, and certainly not the least, is a compelling brand story. A brand needs to know what it stands for, how it's differentiated in the marketplace, and whether that difference is impactful to its consumers.
CMO.com: Can you define customer experience management? What does that mean and what does it entail?
Sharma: Customer experience management is largely the toolset that is used to facilitate and elevate a customer experience, or highly personalized and relevant customer engagement, across a customer's journey. To me, it is the core of digital transformation.
CMO.com: Can you talk about the evolution of e-commerce and how its definition is expanding as CX becomes more and more of a priority?
Sharma: We don't talk about e-commerce so much anymore. We talk about omnichannel commerce, which is where I think the notions of commerce in a digital world have expanded from a simple point-and-click transaction.
The idea of omnichannel commerce is based on the notion that, ultimately, it is the consumer in charge. They should be able to interact and transact with the brand at any place most contextually relevant to them, not most logistically convenient for the brand. That may be in-store through a retailer, certainly, or that may be online through a direct-to-consumer experience. It may happen through automated interactions such as chatbots, or via social platform, or one click on a mobile device. But all of these various touch points must be frictionless and natural for the consumer.
CMO.com: What emerging technology are you keeping a close eye on and why?
Sharma: Artificial intelligence (AI) is an area where we continue to see the greatest degree of immediate impact. What I find really powerful about AI is its ability to create a continuously learning, self-healing, and predictive environment. And those three aspects of AI are what we think is going to be make the biggest impact–especially in the near term.
CMO.com: If you weren't a marketer, what would you be doing for a living?
Sharma: I get a great degree of enjoyment from helping lead people toward a vision, and I've received the greatest amount of fulfillment helping our associates and our clients actualize their full potential. I would really be drawn to any role where I can help people be better at being themselves.
CMO.com: What's the best leadership advice you've ever received?
Sharma: The best leaders always try to lead from the back.