‘Data and analytics are the essential fuel of personalisation’

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Interview about the journey to personalisation at scale at British Airways, and the fundamental role of data and analytics that helped them along the way.

Jo Boswell is the former Head of Customer Value Management for British Airways. She led analytics teams for the last 15 years and has championed better use of data and insight to drive the airline’s commercial and customer activities.

SEE ALSO: The Big Book of Customer Insight, Data & Analytics 2017

Most recently Boswell led the Know Me programme, a successful business transformation programme embedding personalisation into the customer experience. She is currently freelancing in an advisory capacity for organisations embarking on similar journeys.

Customer data and analytics

In this interview with CX Network she talks about the journey to personalisation at scale at British Airways, and the fundamental role of data and analytics that helped them along the way.


As an introduction, can you share a brief overview of your background in CX?

I was the driving force behind the Know Me programme at British Airways, a business transformation programme using data and technology to embed personalisation into the customer experience.

I headed this up from the outset, from design through to delivery; and in 2016 transitioned the programme into day-to-day activity as the Customer Value Management Team.

The initiative was viewed as a fantastic part of the airline’s customer and commercial strategy, creating a robust approach to delivering personalisation at scale into the customer experience, with tangible business results.

With the rise of the demanding customer, personalisation has become somewhat of a buzzword for CX and marketing teams alike, but few have managed to achieve true personalisation at scale. Why do you think this is?

The simple answer is that it is very hard to do. Many companies are talking about their ambitions in this space, but the ability to execute on that vision often lags some way behind. It is relatively easy to get started and conduct small trials. The challenges come thick and fast when you try to scale up and embed an integrated and consistent approach to personalisation across an organisation’s different customer interactions in different channels. 

At British Airways we estimated the size of this challenge as some 400 million customer interactions a year across five key channels. When you add to that the difficulties of an often complex operating environment, you get a sense of the difficulties we had to overcome.

"Successful personalisation at scale relies on having a coordinated and aligned understanding of a customer’s relationship with a company across all touchpoints."

Many businesses struggle at this stage, because they have functioned efficiently in the past managing each channel as a separate silo. The experience that results from this approach will lack coherence for the customer. It is no good being brilliantly personalised in one channel if you cannot replicate the experience in other channels – this fundamentally undermines what you are trying to achieve for your customers.

As more companies succeed in overcoming these challenges, customers will be less forgiving of those organisations that lag behind.

And what is the role of key trend data and analytics when it comes to personalisation at scale?

I see data and analytics as the essential ‘fuel’ of personalisation. At British Airways the journey began with fixing some of the basics with customer data and creating a comprehensive single customer view. This provided the airline with an understanding of its customer base that challenged some of the traditional thinking – for example we discovered that not all high value customers were enrolled in the frequent flyer programme.

Successful personalisation at scale relies on having a coordinated and aligned understanding of a customer’s relationship with a company across all touchpoints. Analytics need to become embedded in decision making right across the customer experience, generating insights that drive decisions on the ‘next best action’ for each customer in each channel.

As organisations start to apply this kind of customer decisioning across different customer interactions, constant measurement is required to optimise decisions day by day and hour by hour. As a result, the analytics function performs an increasingly important operational role, embedded in the myriad daily decisions organisations are making; as well as shaping the strategic direction for customer experience through the identification and articulation of broader customer trends and opportunities.

The proliferation of data points that can now be gathered to show how customers are interacting and engaging with brands also provides organisations with rich ‘listening’ opportunities, and companies need to adapt to ensure they are also tuned into these types of customer signals.

What are the biggest challenges for organisations today that might be hampering their progress on that personalisation journey?

Data and legacy systems are often viewed as the key challenges to overcome, particularly for organisations considering starting out on this journey. In my experience, these challenges are easily dealt with when compared with the difficulties of overcoming the ‘silo’ mentality that tends to exist in a company’s culture and business processes.

You might have the best data and analytics, but the ability to execute relies on having the right business processes and culture to ensure the insight is acted upon, and that colleagues using the insight understand the purpose.

"I see data and analytics as the essential ‘fuel’ of personalisation."

Which key steps should organisations take to overcome these challenges?

My advice to any company considering embarking on a personalisation approach is to start by fixing the basics with their customer data, and make sure there are robust data governance processes. Any ambitions you may have around personalising the customer experience will be undermined if your data is inaccurate – this leads to mistrust from your customers and employees.

Putting processes in place to measure your data quality and accuracy will help to identify where the issues lie. A test and learn approach is a really useful way to gain insight into what will work with your customers, as well as highlighting where the main gaps exist in your ability to deliver. If you can get meaningful results on the business impact of personalisation, it will help in securing ongoing buy-in and investment from your organisation.

Big Book

To overcome the challenge of customer thinking in siloes, you need to create a unifying customer planning framework, based on data and insight. You need to start thinking about understanding customer journeys, rather than just individual touchpoints, so that you can build towards a more integrated customer experience that transcends those touchpoints and channels.

Above all you need to invest time and effort in internal engagement – lots of it! You need to win hearts and minds internally to ensure the whole organisation embraces the change.

In order to overcome any internal resistance, it helps to identify win-win opportunities. An example of this at British Airways was when we spotted that two thirds of the customers calling our contact centres had browsed ba.com in the previous 48 hours. Our contact centre agents were served with insight and recommendations that helped them build rapport on the call, and this ultimately translated into better sales results.

That’s great to hear! What other successes have you seen following this route at British Airways?

The test and learn approach we undertook at British Airways provided very tangible results on the value of personalisation. An early win saw relevant information about important customer milestones pushed to colleagues on board via iPads – resulting in a significantly improved Net Promoter Score (NPS) for the whole journey for customers who were recognised this way.


"To overcome the challenge of customer thinking in siloes, you need to create a unifying customer planning framework, based on data and insight"

We also set out to test whether we could make our marketing communications more relevant and engaging with a personalised approach. This really tested our internal capability and infrastructure, as we replaced a ‘one size fits all’ approach with the need to manage around 750,000 variants of a single campaign. The results consistently proved the success of the approach, even where the data set for more infrequent customers was relatively sparse.

The impending arrival of the General Data Protection Rules (GDPR) also throws an extra challenge into the mix – how is this impacting achieving personalisation at scale specifically?

In many ways I think GDPR is helpful as it shines the spotlight on the importance of a structured governance approach to managing customer data. Regardless of legal considerations, companies should be aspiring to earn the trust of customers in how their data is used.

The downside is that the personalisation journey may be slowed down if a company needs to undertake significant data projects to comply with GDPR – there is usually a limited amount of investment and resource that can be deployed on these data projects at any given time.

Companies may need to upweight their customer data investments in the short term to ensure they can meet both needs.

SEE ALSO: 5 GDPR Myths Busted

And what have been your biggest learnings along the way? Is there anything you would do differently?

Test and learn is an important part of the journey – it helps to provide concrete evidence of the difference personalisation can make to the bottom line; and it also serves to educate the organisation on the new business capabilities and processes required for a personalisation ambition. Make sure you know how you will scale up from test and learn, however. The quicker you can undertake the scale phase, the better.

Make internal engagement a major focus for your transformation programme – you need to bring the entire organisation with you on your personalisation journey to ensure your customers, and the organisation, benefit from your investment.

Finally, what piece of advice can you give CX leaders that are nearer the start of their journey to ensure they’re on the road to personalisation success?

Think big, start small – but above all, begin somewhere!

This interview is from The Big Book of Customer Insight, Data & Analytics 2017. Click here for your complimentary copy of the full report.