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Since the conclusion of the DOCUMENT Strategy Forum (DSF), which was held May 1-3 in downtown Chicago, we’ve had a chance to review some of the central themes emerging from the conference and our views on how they will impact customer communications professionals and the organizations they serve. The following are four trends we see in customer communications, based on our many conversations with those communications professionals—both at the conference and among our clients:
  • Customer communications management (CCM) is part of the larger conversation about customer experience
  • Funding for CCM initiatives remains tight but is improving
  • The backlog of communications that need to be rewritten and/or re-platformed is massive
  • The supply side of the industry is moving toward offering hosted composition and delivery services in the cloud

The Larger Customer Experience Agenda

The customer experience agenda is one that many conference attendees endorsed. The big issue for most organizations is improving the customer experience, and communications are just one facet of that experience for the customer—alongside the call center experience, for instance, or what happens in a branch.

Is this recognition a big change? Not really, but for many that live down in the weeds of an operation, it’s key to sometimes step back and acknowledge the big picture. It also means we need to be tuned into the lingo of customer experience professionals; think “journey mapping” and “net promoter scores.” The good news is that customer experience improvements are directly tied to increased profits (via retention), so more and more executives understand the economics.

Funding Improves

Based on many conversations at the conference, the general consensus is that funding for communications projects is improving. In particular, dollars have increased for work on rewriting and re-platforming templates (whether through internal staff or vendors). This is a big step forward, given the generally constricted funding environment over the last seven years or so. However, let’s be careful about what we ask for and have been given. Now, we have to deliver results. Ask yourself: How many documents are currently available with the new look and feel, and how many have had their language simplified? Keep count, and hold yourself accountable.

Unfortunately, many we spoke to at the event still struggle with creating competitive business cases. We encourage you to seek out those individuals who are great at creating compelling financial justifications; it’s a skill set many of us need help with.

Backlog, Backlog, Backlog

Even with the improvement in funding, we fear the investment is still insufficient to address the significant backlog of legacy communications. We’ve had clients describe the inventory of discrete communications they manage in the tens of thousands. For example, if one template out of 1,000 requires 40 hours to recreate or convert to a modern format, the number of hours needed could exceed 40,000, which is 27 full-time employees (FTEs). Even if we stretch this out over three years, that still means we need an additional 10 people to work the backlog. Most of the firms we spoke with have been able to gain one or two people to do this work (and five people at one firm), but not 10.

As a result, the funding we do get will need to be spent judiciously. High-volume, high-visibility documents must go first. In addition, we need to work smarter, and the supply side of the industry is beginning to understand this.

Supply-Side Support for Cloud-Based Managed Services

There is a lot of logic in the old saying, “Let the pros do it.” In the case of creating effective communications—whether that means converting to new templates, redrafting language, adding Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) tags, etc.—these are all very specialized capabilities that a small set of service providers have optimized, and these same providers are automating some of the tasks and/or using conversion utilities. While the supply side is not 10 times more efficient, we do believe a factor of two or three is realistic—meaning that team of 27 FTEs we previously calculated just dropped to 10. Exciting stuff.

Another big change is the emergence of cloud-based managed services. No longer will every firm need to purchase, install, configure, patch, and maintain a set of five or so publishing systems, along with the cost of the requisite information technology (IT) support staff. There are real savings associated with this change. Once upon a time, most firms had their own print shops. Today, most print is outsourced to a small set of specialized service providers. We see the same happening with composition and publishing. It is far too specialized and complicated to be justified at many organizations. This change will take many years, however, as the transition is complex. Yet, if a firm can migrate even 20% to 30% of its communications to this approach, that is a big step forward and will contribute to the increased pace of change.

The supply side of the industry is moving toward offering hosted composition and delivery services in the cloud—potentially a "game changer" for organizations stuck maintaining a portfolio of tools and platforms (some of them very old) in the CCM space.

One thing is clear, though: These four trends, when taken together, seem to suggest that we can expect to see the speed of change increase—a more pronounced emphasis on digital delivery with simple, easy-to-consume messaging.

James Watson, Jr., PhD, is the President of Doculabs, a consultancy specializing in content-based applications, and has extensive expertise in architecting enterprise strategies to address information management, information governance, and customer communications.

Tom Roberts is a Principal Consultant at Doculabs and has deep expertise in enterprise content management (ECM) and customer communications management (CCM) processes and technologies.