It’s a truth universally acknowledged in business that the customer is king - and yet like so many such aphorisms it doesn’t bear close analysis. Anyone who’s spent a fruitless hour on the phone to their bank’s customer services trying to get an overdraft charge refunded, or attempted to get their mobile number ported to a new carrier, or even just tried to get that brand they don’t like any more to stop spamming them with SMS messages, doesn’t feel very regal by the end of it.
All this aggro is down to too much tech optimisation, reckons Thunderhead’s founder Glen Manchester. Or at least, not enough of the right kind. ‘Brands have evolved over many years - from websites to mobile apps, CRM systems, e-commerce tools - they have all these systems and while they are optimal individually, that’s only in their silos. Taken together these systems are sub-optimal in understanding the customer journey.’
And even though the providers themselves don’t intend to make customers' lives difficult (those customers may beg to differ) that is often the way it pans out, he says, simply because the tech they use isn’t up to the job. ‘Brands want to provide a seamless experience, with no spam messages and no need to tell people in the call centre the same thing five times over, but it’s challenging to do. The tech gets in the way because often it was not designed to do the things that are being asked of it.’
So while what customers want is a quick and painfree experience however and whenever they interact with brands or providers, too often what they end up with is a teeth-grindingly frustrating game of round the houses, by the end of which they want like nothing better than never to buy anything from that company again.
It doesn’t have to be that way, says Manchester. ‘The customer is at the heart of the digital transformation. It’s about providing them with a relevant, personalised experience that doesn’t revolve around trying to flog them stuff every five minutes when they aren’t interested,’ he says.
The answer? Thunderhead’s engagement hub, ONE, ties all those different systems together to listen and understand what a customer is really doing online and offline, which in turn identifies the journey that the customer is on with the brand. (well, we did say less hard sell, not none at all).
‘We are not spooky adtech and we are not tracking anyone, we just want to help you achieve what you want to achieve: to resolve a customer service issue, to help you buy more judiciously, if you are unhappy to stop them marketing to you until you feel more motivated about the brand.’
ONE is just the latest iteration of Manchester's obsession with personalised communication for big brands, that dates all the way back to his first business founded in the early 90s at the tender age of 25. ‘I saw there was an opportunity in enterprise technology because of personalisation. I started and ran the business for eight years before selling it in 1999. We were behind the customer engagement strategy for Egg, Virgin Direct and Lloyds Direct - businesses trying to offer a more personalised service.’
After that business came the first Thunderhead platform, called Smart Communications, which became an industry standard in the banking and finance sectors and a big hit in the USA. ‘75% of our business was there’ he says.
That itself was sold late last year in order to fund the completion and launch of the ONE hub, a major investment of tens of millions of dollars which Manchester is funding entirely with his own cash. ‘I didn’t buy the country house’ he says. ‘I reinvested everything in ONE. I took no outside money because if I had they would have diverted the focus of the business.’ Plus he admits that it might have been difficult to find an investor with the stomach for the job. ‘People are good at copying things in tech - plenty of precedents for making better versions of existing tools, but we don’t copy here we are making something really new.
‘It’s a big investment in machine learning and innovative tech which quantifies and analyses how customers engage with brands across multiple touchpoints - in store, online, call centre. It took 4 years to bring this tech to the market, people forget that about enterprise tech. It’s heavy lifting and it takes time. Not like social where you can do it in a couple of weeks - these are big apps that run businesses.’
They have signed up a number of diverse customers already, from charities like the Prince’s Trust to luxury carmaker Aston Martin, a large German utility provider and and an as-yet un-named large north London football club, for whom fan engagement is very much the name of the game. ‘We appeal to progressive brands - the end goal is effortless engagement and happier customers, because they buy more and make more recommendations.
‘It’s about keeping all the plates spinning - if you have a great experience on the website that’s good, but what if you then go to the store and it’s crappy? If you manage these multiple experiences well over time, that gives you engagement.’
The big push, however, will come in the autumn and will be focussed on the US - a market which Manchester has had great success in before. ‘We’ve got great historical customer relations there and I’ve always been very close to the states because to me it’s the epicentre of enterprise tech. I came from Xerox originally and I was inspired by Palo Alto and all the design and customer experience ethos that came out of there.’
So as a seasoned Brit serial entrepreneur, what advice would he give to someone doing a tech start up of their own right now? ‘Do your homework’ he says. ‘For all our bravery, we do our research too.
'And make sure you have assessed your capacity to execute. It might be a great idea, but do you have the team to execute it?’
Andrew Saunders has now left MT. You can contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on twitter @andymsaunders