Everyone realizes the power of personal, meaningful connections. The more personalized the customer experience is, the better.

Professionals who cultivate deep, personal, meaningful relationships get 3X more referrals and form longer lasting business relationships, according to recent research. Those relationships increase average spend and encourage brand loyalty.

However, more meaningful relationships take both time and intimate knowledge about your customers and prospects. So they don't usually scale well. But scale they must… Personal, meaningful relationships must be possible with thousands of people, not just a few dozen.

"Scale" makes the problem sound like one of automation. But automation is as much the problem as it is the solution.

Today's automation systems are not up to the task of managing and building upon these kinds of relationships. Sure, they can simplify a workflow—but they are not geared towards enabling the kinds of "small meaningful gestures" that are the basis of strong relationships. In fact, those systems may be dangerous, lulling professionals into a false sense of "connecting."

"The biggest challenge sales will face in 2016 is the temptation for automation," says Kyle Porter, CEO of SalesLoft. "With all the data, email, and phone sales tools out there, salespeople will struggle to find the balance between sincerity and scale."

Many salespeople and service firms avoid automation, preferring to cultivate clients the old-fashioned way.

It's easy to see how sincerity is missing if we look at the tools currently available for trying to connect with people at scale.

  • CRM or contact management systems. There are various types of CRM or CM systems on the market, from simple to complex. Most of these track relevant contact and business information (company, title, email, etc.) and leave some room for notes and contact history. A good tool can store and retrieve lots of information, but unfortunately, most modern CRM systems are not built to provide insight or recommend a course of action.
  • Social media. Social media can be a treasure trove of information—when a person decides to share it. And even when people do share, they are liable to be more self-promotional. That doesn't make personal connections any easier. Granted, LinkedIn and other professional networks have added features over the years to keep in touch with business contacts. For example, professional networks send reminders about work anniversaries or sharing status updates. But such contact tends to be infrequent and shallow.
  • Marketing automation software. Marketing automation software is great at providing the kind of structure needed to make regular contact with several people and have roughly the same message to send. It usually isn't designed to address the issue of personal, meaningful contact. In fact, many service firms and account-management-heavy businesses forgo marketing automation software entirely.

A Wish List for Automating the Engagement Process

All that doesn't mean that digital tools aren't right for the job. They're needed to scale any endeavor. Those tools simply need to deliver the right content at the right time to be actionable.

For example, the right tool should be…

  • Proactive. It should generate actionable insights based on the information already gathered about a person. It should also suggest what further pieces of information are needed.
  • Personal. Insights and recommendations should be personalized, based on the unique information in a profile. The more information in a profile, the more insightful the recommendations should become.
  • Actionable. You need to be able to do something with all the information you have. Analytics should be aimed at determining the next action step.
  • Time-saving. The right tool should do the work for you, letting you skip those exhaustive searches looking for the right gift or personalized content.
  • Easy to use. Personal, meaningful touches need to be done with frequency and consistency. If the tool isn't easy to use, it won't get used.
  • Scalable. You should be able to engage with your contacts (whether you have only a handful or thousands) on a consistent, scalable basis.

Where Engagement Automation Is Going

What could we do with such a tool? Say a customer shares that he's looking at retirement communities for his aging mother in the Atlanta area, and he's having a tough time.

A few days after speaking with him, you send him a link to an organization that works with families struggling with this challenge.

The following week, you send him a quick email simply checking in to see how he and his mother are doing. It's these simple gestures that resonate with your customer on a personal level and build that relationship bond. You've gone above and beyond the business contact to genuinely help your customer.

Now imagine if you can do these meaningful gestures with hundreds of clients with just few minutes a day. Wouldn't it transform your customers into true brand ambassadors? That's the power of automation.

So personal and automated are not distinct options—we need both. We must find ways to usefully combine them. When we do, it will open up a whole new way of digitally engaging with customer and prospects at scale.

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Marketing Automation Systems Should Help Deepen Customer Relationships

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image of Baker Nanduru

Baker Nanduru is a CEO of Delighterr, a next gen client engagement software company.

LinkedIn: Baker Nanduru

Twitter: @pnanduru