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In this Leadership Insights video interview, Amanda Razani speaks with Pete Stein, president of Merkle Americas about harnessing data, the importance of digital messaging and online customer experiences.



Amanda Razani: Hello, I’m Amanda Razani, with Digital CxO. And I’m so excited to be here today with Pete Stein who is the president of Merkle Americas. How are you doing today?

Pete Stein: Great, Amanda, how are you?

Amanda Razani: Good. So we both attended the Adobe summit. And I know Merkle was there. Can you tell me a little bit about Merkel? And what you do?

Pete Stein: Yeah. So first, thanks for having me on the podcast; great to be here with you. So Merkle is a company that’s focused on customer experience transformation. We help our clients move from a focus on channel or product to one that is focused on their customer. And understanding that customer in a way that only data can enable. And then leveraging that data to create a connected customer experience across all touch points. So that’s fundamentally what we do.

Amanda Razani: Wonderful. And I know with more online services, and everyone moving online, and work going hybrid and remote, etc., that is very important. So what’s so important about the online customer experience? I know that y’all work a lot in human centered experiences online? Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Pete Stein: Yeah, sure. I mean, look, we live more and more of our lives online as bandwidth has gotten pretty much, you know, real time for all of us. And as the interfaces have gotten easier and easier to use, our expectations as people are that we’re going to be able to interact with the businesses, you know? That we want to do business online, and it’s going to be a very easy experience. And, what we’ve seen, unfortunately, and the research tells us pretty dramatically, that, well, businesses think that they’re delivering the customer experience that their customers want, and the customers are saying, “Hey, you know, the experience is not great, and it’s not where it needs to be.” So that’s where we step in to really help the businesses optimize that customer experience and improve it. I would also just add that the business impact of doing so is very evident; that the customers who have a great experience online are willing to pay more – pay a premium for that brand who delivers the experience. And also that something like 37% of consumers will walk away from a brand that they love after one bad experience. So it’s more and more imperative that brands deliver great experiences for their customers online.

Amanda Razani: Absolutely. So I know, along that note, businesses are trying to figure out how to harness all the data that’s coming in. And it seems to be a real struggle. Where are some of the issues and roadblocks occurring? And how can this be solved?

Pete Stein: Well, look, I’ll say the biggest hurdle tends to be around organizational alignment, right? I mean, first of all, there has to be a clear strategy around the data and how businesses want to leverage it. They have to know what data they want to collect, and what they want to do with it in order to enable the right experience. So first, they’ve got to have a clear strategy. Second, they’ve got to have alignment across the different divisions in terms of that strategy, and then, in addition to that, they’ve got to have the right technology in place to enable the execution of the vision, right? They’ve got to have the tech that’s gonna be able to collect the data, bring it together into one way that’s a clear and simple way to use it. And then they’ve got to be able to activate that across different touchpoints. And so without a clear strategy around the data, without the data actually being managed in a consistent way, and then without the technology that’s in place to enable it – all of these are blockers for businesses in terms of leveraging the data. And we still find that today, I would say one of the things we’re seeing is that clients are really investing in the tech. And the tech is incredibly, as I mentioned, incredibly important to enabling that vision of the beautiful customer experience and the delightful customer experience. But without the data, you’re not going to recognize who that customer is you’re not going to know which segment they fall into. You’re not going to know the next right piece of content or experience that you should be delivering to them. And so I think it’s important just to note that it is about the tech for sure. But it’s also about the data.

Amanda Razani: And combining both that customer experience and harnessing the data – there’s a lot of talk about real-time data. I know you help in that area, especially when it comes to messaging – digital messaging in real time. So can you speak to that a little bit?

Pete Stein: Yeah, for sure. Messaging is an important part of the journey. We want to be able to understand exactly the context in which a customer is coming to us, understand who they are, right? And whether or not we’ve done business with them before. And then be able to leverage messaging as one mechanism for being able to help them in their journey, make sure we’re getting them the product and the service that they need. Make sure that they understand how best to do business with us. Messaging is a really important and effective way to communicate with customers. And again, as you said, like having that data in one place and being able to activate it in the right way with messaging as critical.

Amanda Razani: Definitely. So looking overall, at the big picture, that big word “digital transformation.” Many companies are trying to undertake these transformations; what is the biggest barrier that they have? And for businesses that are behind, what do you think is the way for them to get started with digital transformation?

Pete Stein: Well, look, I think, let’s just start with the second question. I think for a business, it’s critical to be clear and to have a vision for where you’re trying to go; to be clear on where the business opportunity is, right? Understand what is the business impact that you’re driving towards? Then it’s important to understand, based on your customers, what are the use cases that you think are most central to delivering on that business case. With those two in place, then you can start to build a roadmap for where you’re headed. You can start to make sure that you’ve got the right building blocks, blocks in terms of technology and in terms of data in place. And you can build a plan. Now, to your question of what the biggest barrier is. You know, as we’re talking about the top digital transformations, digital channels have become more and more central. And it used to be that digital channels were sort of a sideline – you would go to the website, you would go to the e-commerce store; there was email running on the side. These were communication channels that were created. But they were not always tied into the core business, they were not always connected into the store, they were not always connected into the other touchpoints with more legacy touchpoints that businesses may have had with their customers. At this point, digital is so pervasive that it all needs to be very connected. And so the challenge for businesses is how do they reconcile the two? Right? How do they make sure they’re delivering a great customer experience, but it is indeed one integrated customer experience. So getting all of the right players at the table for the business is probably the biggest challenge; rationalizing how to take the old way of doing things and the new way of doing things and then make them one central way of of running the business and interacting with the customer with just different channels that enable different experiences. I think, you know, for me, that’s the area where we see the the biggest challenges when we’re talking about digital transformation, because it is ultimately. I think that I guess one other thing I would add, like this is not just an opportunity to optimize digital, it’s an opportunity to become customer centric, in everything that you do. And so a lot of businesses have historically been very product centric, are very channel centric in their activities. And now it needs to be customer centric, and everything you do, right? So you have to have a clear sense of who those customers are, how the different segments align, and then how you want to deliver experiences to them, almost regardless of channel, but you know, with the channel behaviors in mind.

Amanda Razani: It’s all about the customer experience. So let’s go back to the Adobe Summit, which is a big topic from last week. And what are some of the things you saw that interested you the most? What were some of the things you were hearing from the summit?

Pete Stein: I think I would say some of the themes that I heard was from people. As you know, definitely we’re seeing a lot more connectivity across the Adobe ecosystem; it’s maturing, they’ve done a really good job of building that connectivity across their product suite. So that was a big theme that we’re hearing. There was a lot of excitement about Firefly and generative AI and the role that it’s going to play in helping teams as clients are moving towards personalization at scale, and trying to deliver individual experiences and getting the right content in front of the right person at the right time. That requires a lot of massive scale of content creation. And so tools like Firefly will help enable organizations to scale exponentially, which is really what everyone needs to do in this digital world as you’re trying to get towards those one-to-one experiences. And on that note, I would say the content factory and that whole experience of creating content at scale was a big theme that I heard. I’m seeing a lot of clients really embrace Workfront. And, you know, some of the capability that brings in terms of managing workflows and keeping the organization in line in terms of who’s creating what and where, where we are in the process. So those were some of the bigger themes that I heard.

Amanda Razani: Awesome. And now what is your relationship with Adobe?

Pete Stein: So we are a platinum partner; we’re one of their largest, if not the largest, agency partner that they work with. You know, we’re not only working together to help our clients on this transformation journey, we’re also working on integrating our products with their products to help accentuate what both of us bring to the table. So yeah, they’re a really important partner for us.

Amanda Razani: Awesome. And last question, what do you see for the future of Merkle? Anything in the works?

Pete Stein: Well, yeah, there’s a lot in the works, for sure. You know, it’s interesting, I’ve been in the business for a while. And, you know, it seems odd to say this, but I think we’re still early days in digital transformation. Or maybe middle days, but we’re certainly not at the end; there’s still a lot of people that haven’t adopted digital, but businesses have not enabled sort of that seamless and frictionless experience, across the entire journey. And we’re very far from, you know, if you think about personalization, it used to be the personalization came from that one-to-one relationship with a salesperson who knew – who knew what you’d like. When new products came in for them, they were going to bring those to you because they were the best suited for you and your needs. Personalization now has become a sort of a cold and distant thing that maybe recognizes your name, or maybe knows that you’ve left something in the shopping cart, and is going to recommend that you purchase those goods. The opportunity with the way technology is evolving, with the way people are starting to organize their data in a way that it’s more useful and with the way that technology – like Adobe’s – is more connected across the entire journey; there’s much more of a capability to actually deliver that personalized experience, to recognize who that customer is, to know that their loyal customer can understand the products that they bought from you in the past, to know things about their lifestyle and life stage that can influence the solutions that you craft for them and bring to the table for them. And so that I think is very central to what we see in the future, along with just making sure that you are building your business in a digitally enabled way. And not only leveraging digital to create that great connected customer experience, but also thinking about new products and services that you can offer your customers that wouldn’t have been available before. I think the reality is that the world is going to continue to evolve. And it’s creating opportunities to develop new business models to create new products and services that may not have been possible before. And so a lot of the partnership that we’re doing with our clients is to help them understand what those possibilities could be, how they can really truly have the best possible understanding of who their customer is, and how that relationship is going to evolve over time.

Amanda Razani: Well, thank you, Pete, for coming on today and sharing your insights with us. I look forward to speaking with you in the future.

Pete Stein: Thanks for having me, Amanda. And I appreciate it.