The Customer Experience: Making the Customer King
Seth Earley | CEO and Founder, Earley and Associates Earley and Associates

Seth Earley is unique. He has a reputation as a thought-leader in the content management marketspace, but doesn't adhere to any particular product or platform. He has a degree in chemistry, of all things. He concentrates on taxonomy, but also can talk knowledgeably about e-business and knowledge management. He has taught in France, and worked for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the "Oscar" people. I wish I had half the cool factor that he has.

But he's humble about it. He says that at one point in his life his friend observed that "you're kind of like a monk. You have a very simple life." Yeah, except that he also is founder of the Boston Knowledge Management Forum and is a Master Trainer for the AIIM Information Organization and Access course. He is also course co-developer and instructor for the SharePoint Information Architecture course taught throughout North America and Europe. He is former adjunct professor at Northeastern University, where he taught graduate courses in knowledge management infrastructure and e-business strategy...  Yeah, right. Simple life.

Seth and I have crossed paths many times, but I never had the chance to really get to know him. We got on the phone last week, and... I got to know a heck of a lot more!

"I starting dating a woman, but it was complicated because she was a traveling business consultant, and I was an information management consultant, so the only place we could be together was on the road. We both had business in Chicago, so we commuted together." The life of a road warrior is never uncomplicated, but Seth had it doubled. Good news: she eventually became his wife.

He has worked for start-up companies by writing their business plans and getting financing; he's worked in real estate, the restaurant business, was a bartender, he's a black belt in karate, he ran the Boston Marathon without training for it ("wanted to do it before I was 30, and was nearing my birthday, so I just did it") and he's now a leading information and knowledge management guru. I wish my life was as "simple" as all that.

He is prolific in his current business life as well. A few months ago he did 14 presentations in six weeks, many of which on topics that were new but interesting to him. "So I did a lot of research," he says, and then lists off the topics—big data, search-based applications, enterprise content management, rights management..." and on top of that he had a business to run. The guy's busy.

The Subject At Hand

And his business is also busy. I had looked into his background beforehand, and knew a little bit about his history in customer experience-type subjects. So, for fun, I tried to steer him to admit that "customer relationship management" was a misnomer, because you can't "manage" a customer. You can do your best to provide a good experience, but "managing" a customer is completely impossible. "You know, it's interesting you say that," starts Seth, "because when we engage with a company, we look at things like account management,  opportunity management, project management..." and then he mentions "relationship management" last and not especially enthusiastically. "You can't manage customers, but you can manage the interactions with them. You can manage how you react to them. You can manage the processes in place to service them. But, I agree—you can't manage a customer."

He tells the story of his first expereiences in the "consulting" field. He wanted to teach Lotus Notes because he had been studying it recently, and thought he had a knack for explaining it to others. But one of his clients thought that, because of his apparent lack of technical depth, he would "never have credibility with a CIO." Yet he went on to become a major player in what IBM's CIO called his "Lotus SWAT team."

But he also admits that relationship was limited because, "he never learned to manage the relationship" with IBM well enough. As he grew his company, Earley and Associates, he learned to engage his customers through choosing very narrowly focused, very specific projects, then broadening them over time. It seems to have worked.

The Core of Business Language

Seth is probably best known as a developer of business taxonomies. He believes the whole point to building a business taxonomy is to have a consistency in language and communication, which you can only learn from the customer. And those customers change over time, and mature, and managing those activities over time is key to what Seth would call "technical information architecture."

But Seth, being Seth, has also evolved, and has tackled "big data" in recent months. Why the emphasis on a very technical, information-intensive subject in the context of "customer experience?" Do the two coexist in any significant way? "You need to put in context," he explains. "Put it in the perspective of social media, put it in the perspective of customer analytics and think of the huge amount of transactional data and customer interaction and content management that companies in financial services, for example, commit to every day. Plus there's a lot of confusion in the marketplace right now. What I want to make people understand is that if you look at big data as a project intitiative or technology or whatever it is, without a focus on how it's going to impact your customer, it's just a science class. You have to think of interacting with the customer, or at least controlling the processes with which you work with the customer.

"The key point I'm making is that you need to combine the organization's strategy with the data sources," and how those play together, he thinks. "It has a lot to do with ‘voice of the customer.' What does our customer believe or do or say about us?"

All this implies one thing: it costs. "All the technology components—BI, knowledgebases, CRM, customer contact centers, e-commerce applications-have costs associated with them. And the C-level people want to know how those costs will yield revenue." And that's all they want to know, I reckon.

So there's a disconnect between what the IT guys are doing in the clean rooms and what the C-level people actually care about. "That's exactly right. Most IT processes are cost centers. There are ways to measure the bottom—usability, quality, the metadata that's tagged, the processes themselves. There's all sorts of way to measure processes. But the CEO doesn't care about all that."

I argue that he or she—the CEO—should, but that doesn't make it so. But I still get Seth's point. If the activity doesn't effectively bring customers into the company, it is just a cost, not a value, proposition. And from a management point of view, it's difficult to defend. They hire people to do that. They don't do it themselves. Mid-level and senior-level executives are bonused from the top, not the bottom. "So that is why I tell people to pay attention to the value of the processes, not just the mechanics of the process. The business initiative must be aligned with the bigger-picture strategy," he says.

"I always tell people: find out what your business unit is being funded for. Find out what your exeuctives are being bonused on. And then prove how your initiatve will help meet those goals." That's Seth's secret "pixie dust," as he calls it. Make the case for return on investment, and you will succeed.

Seth likes to talk about organizations as though they can be organized. But that's a difficult mission for any company; forget about large, multinationals. Think about the mid-sized trucking/logistics companies in your local industrial park with their conflicting goals and priorities. What helps one group can hurt another, so organization politics come into play. It's a beautiful vision, I agree, but like nirvana, it's difficult to reach. But there's at least one guy who is devoted to reaching it. Or at least getting close. I like Seth. But he's chosen a tough row to hoe.       

Earley & Associates, Inc.
P.O. Box 649
Stow MA 01775

PH: 781.444.0287
Contact: www.earley.com/contact
Web: www.earley.com

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