In 1993, Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersma published their seminal article in the Harvard Business Review about the three value disciplines (operational excellence, customer intimacy, product leadership) that outstanding companies practice. The decades-long argument about whether or not a given company can only optimize on one or two disciplines at the expense of the others (or one other) is now academic. The fact that Treacy and Wiersma identified and popularized these critical disciplines allowed companies to improve performance by narrowing and sharpening their focus. Whether or not an enterprise can excel at one, two or all three disciplines is irrelevant except in relative terms against its competition.

Customer intimacy is most closely tied to marketing; and within that, tied closely to demand generation and marketing automation. Do our current best practices hurt customer intimacy or enhance it? Or is it a wash?

To answer that question, it’s important to understand what customer intimacy means. It might take different forms, depending on the industry, B2B or B2C, company size, and so forth. We understand it this way:

  • Knowing customer needs to ensure high levels of satisfaction;
  • Maintaining a single, unified view of a customer’s interactions across all types of interactive media and communication channels; and
  • Anticipating a customer’s changing needs to maintain satisfaction.

In today’s economy, companies are especially motivated to retain customers and deepen relationships, as opposed to simply focusing on customer acquisition. This is especially true for the software-as-a-service model (SaaS), where switching costs and subscription fees are relatively low. Marketing automation can play a key role in the retention process: It improves customer data quality, provides location intelligence and consolidates data from multiple sources to a single view. It nurtures and deepens customer relationships by customizing communications. The benefits are obvious:

  • Better customer retention, resulting in more predictable and continuing revenue streams;
  • Increased loyalty, which can yield cross-sell and upsell opportunities; and
  • More referrals.

At the same time, the other side of that coin has some negative implications. Marketers are sometimes criticized for automating all interactions, including email, social networking, chat and even phone calls. Critics say this approach undermines customer intimacy by reducing trust. They raise other concerns as well:

  • The lack of real-time human involvement creates an emotional barrier between the customer and the vendor.
  • The computerized approach – even when based on accurate underlying customer data – makes people feel like very small fish in a very large pond.
  • Intrusive events based on algorithms and data sometimes make people feel as if their privacy has been violated.

But taken together, we feel the benefits outweigh the negatives. The ability to assess customer needs is the foundation of marketing, and marketing automation enhances that process immeasurably. Understanding purchase cycle behavior on a large scale and reacting to it in meaningful ways is one of the most powerful capabilities at a marketer’s disposal.

And finally, marketing automation provides us with a capability we never had before: personalization. When you are managing relationships with thousands or millions of potential customers, it’s not humanly possible to have one-to-one interactions with everyone. But with marketing automation you can tailor every automatic communication to show potential customers that you care enough about them to create relevant messages.