March 30 2010 12:00 AM

Recently, we've been receiving an increased number of inquiries regarding ways to improve the customer experience, whether through hard copy, electronic or personal touch points. While most questions have come from larger enterprises, I don't think they have the market cornered when it comes to missed opportunities for communications that deliver a maximum impact.

Some vertical markets have traditionally been more focused on and successful at creating appealing, effective hard copy communications; however, in our recent "Multi-Channel Market Study," we saw an increased awareness of the competitive value in targeted communications and have received inquires for assistance from small to large enterprises and across all the key verticals, including Financial Services, Banking, Insurance and Utilities & Telecom. Further, in addition to the expansion into all enterprise sizes and vertical markets, we are finding these inquiries cut across all application types, including bills, customer account statements, enrollment kits, direct mail and notices. It seems neither pre-sales nor post-sales customer communications are immune to the common shortcomings that limit, or even defeat, their effectiveness.

The root problem isn't to be found in the documents or communications that organizations present to their clients. Just as we mentioned above that the issues are not tied to particular applications types, neither are they specific to a particular industry or enterprise size — although the documents are where those issues manifest themselves most significantly because that is where the impact on customer relations is greatest.

What firms actually describe is not a document issue, but a lack of customer understanding (a customer data issue). The lack of centralized, accurate and accessible customer data is the single most common factor we discover for why our clients can't improve the quality — both effectiveness and efficiency — of their communications to their customers. And that turns out to be systemic, embedded in the core applications utilized by all organizations, which is why so many firms are afflicted.

When we dissect the issues described, whether it is a mis-targeted cross-sell message or a rogue direct mailpiece, it inevitably leads back to a lack of understanding about the customer based on incorrect, incomplete or misapplied client data. A mortgage refinance direct mail offer from the bank you just refinanced with, a homeowner policy provider offering you multi-line discounts on the same multi-lines you have insured with them or AT&T offering a new iPhone just after you've signed a new two0year agreement and upgraded to an iPhone are just some of the examples of situations where firms jeopardize continued and/or future business with bungled communications that convey a lack of knowledge about their customer at best, or worst, serve to annoy or anger the customer.

CIOs have understood this issue for some time, and technology firms have brought solutions to market in an attempt to address the disparate customer data silos using middleware technologies that layer onto an already complex and burgeoning technology stack. Successes are scarce, made more challenging by the recent mergers and acquisitions that have left corporate IT departments scrambling to integrate brand marketing, promotional and sales requirements.

There are some best practices in this area; however, the commitment is long and challenging. Firms with multiple product offerings face enormous challenges in an effort to understand who their customers are and what they want. There are some shining stars to encourage the rest, such as USAA, the member-based insurance/investment/bank based in San Antonio that invested in the IT infrastructure to provide superior customer experience at every touch point.

This diagnosis will be with us for awhile, and there appears no simple fix. With superior leadership and perseverance, many more firms can make the journey. Hope to see you there!

KEMAL CARR [kemalcarr@madison-advisors.com] is the president and principal analyst of Madison Advisors, an advisory firm that provides thought leadership, strategic consulting and market research in the print and electronic communications space.