Deconstructing the omnichannel - with Sailthru CEO Neil Capel

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed April 18, 2014
Sailthru's Neil Capel is not your typical CEO. He was up for some frank talk on personalization, and whether we actually need the 'omnichannel.'

Sailthru has a bit of a PR conundrum - at least when it comes to yours truly. Sailthru specializes in areas I am skeptical about - such as personalized marketing, and serving the 'ominchannel' customer.  Score one for patience and diplomacy on their part - they invited me to their Boston analyst session anyway. During an informal lobby sitdown, CEO Neil Capel was up for debating these points. He even had insightful responses to my predictable Facebook-bashing.

Sailthru has an appealing startup energy, but they've actually been around for six years and are now up to 170 employees. They count stalwarts like the Christian Science Monitor and the Huffington Post amongst their 400 customers, so calling them 'upstarts' is unfair to their market traction. The Sailthru management team includes veterans from social CRM ventures like Radian6, which may explain the startup/experience balance Sailthru seems to have achieved.

Capel is not your typical CEO, and I'm not just saying that because of his startuppy background and his regular appearances on notable or 'cool' tech leaders lists. I thought it would be fun to pull together some highlights from my talks and emails with Capel. Here's the result.

Jon: You strike me as a startup guy at heart. What do you think enterprises can learn from startup culture?

Neil: The biggest learning for enterprises I see comes from startups’ agility. It applies to innovation and, critically, response time to customer needs. Also, in startups, cross-functional collaboration is a huge value that enterprises can lack. They may have you believe it’s a symptom of a lack of resources at a given startup but, in reality, cross-functional collaboration is born out of striving to be responsive and innovative for and because of customers. It’s another trait that enterprises can learn from startup culture.

Jon: ‘Omnichannel’ is one of those wanky buzzwords I regret saying as soon as I utter it. Do we need this word?

Neil: I hear you! I don’t think we need “omnichannel” but we do need to recognize how important it is as a concept. Omnichannel is about continuity of experience across every channel – not just the act of marketing using multiple channels in an integrated approach. As new channels emerge often these days, an omnichannel platform that has you covered is one that connects your brand experience. It’s the thought that counts.

Jon: Personalization works best on a single platform - such as the continual recommendations built into But if I need to call on the phone, they don’t seem to have a data or personalization advantage that extends across channels. That seems to be the case for most companies. Why is that?

Neil: I blame your sentiment on the fact that most organizations are trying to back into personalization and jam together multiple platforms to create one customer experience - it won’t work. When you don’t think user-first and instead you let data silos persist, it’s a whole lot harder to ensure the information your own employees are accessing on your customers is accurate and up to date. Proving your organization can’t sync up internally erodes customer trust.

Jon: ‘Customer experience’ is the phrase of the day. In your work with Sailthru customers, are they talking more about overall customer experience, or are they more focused on specific issues such as improving their abandoned shopping cart rates, etc?

Neil: Typically our clients start talking to us about individual roadblocks in the overall customer experience to start. But as we work together the conversations shift from those tactics to long-term strategies. Our customers today are focused on creating a customer lifetime experience that maximizes and uncovers new revenue opportunities.

CRM rethought part 5 - now what?In this final part of Paul Greenberg's CRM rethought series, we look at some definitions that hopefu…diginomica.comJon: Anything else you are hearing from customers that surprises you?

Neil: Today’s marketers seem to get that competitive advantages are easy to lose while dithering about purchasing decisions. Our sales cycle is shortening, which seems unique in the industry. Quite honestly, I’m often surprised when customers realize just how powerful the actual execution of personalization is in transforming marketing strategy development, customer retention and customer lifetime value.

Jon: If personalized advertising works, why have I never seen a personalized ad on Facebook that is relevant to me?

Neil: I think Facebook is a great example of a company that is figuring it out and their actions show the industry that it’s important not to fear failure or innovation. But the reason why you haven’t seen a personalized ad that is relevant to you is because most brands do not have the means to truly understand what relevancy means for you.

This requires the brands to access the explicit and implicit data around your behaviors, interests and triggers and the ability to interpret that data and only then serve the ad. Personalization and relevancy sound simple, but there’s a tremendous data supply chain that the concepts involve.

Jon: Shameless plug time! You have developed a proprietary solution called Smart Data. What is Smart Data, and how is it different from other customer analytics solutions?

Neil: Simply put, Sailthru Smart Data is big data made actionable in real time. At Sailthru, we uniquely enable brands to learn from and more intelligently engage with their customers based on a combination of behavioral and interest data. In total, our solution automatically analyzes the vast troves of explicit and implicit customer data brands are dealing with today so that they can automate informed, personalized communications to every individual customer.

What sets Sailthru apart from other customer analytics solutions is that we aren’t just a business intelligence or analytics solution. We’re a total suite solution for developing and deploying 1:1 communications across all channels. We believe that every user is unique and we’re the only natively-built technology platform that can deliver this to the market.

Jon: What is the biggest misconception about Sailthru that media types like me don’t understand?

Neil: Misconceptions of Sailthru include people thinking we’re an ESP or even an advertising platform. We also run into media that are tired of people crying “wolf” on personalization. By that I mean, 1:1 personalization at scale is a promise a lot of companies have made and failed to deliver on over the years. We’ve been around for six years, yet some media think we’re just latching onto a modern term and they don’t believe us.

Jon: You’re not a typical CEO, but you still have to lead. Where do you get your leadership lessons?

Neil: I lead from the example my dad set for me. He was an entrepreneur himself back in England - a greengrocer. He taught me everything I know about patience and personalization - he knew his clients so expertly that when large grocers came into the area they stayed away from having greengrocer sections as he had huge market share and intense customer loyalty. He taught me that excellence in customer service, experience, support, etc. is the key to a successful business and defending oneself from competition. He also taught me to delegate and that the proof is in the pudding. At Sailthru we are a results-only work environment (ROWE) meaning you can work at your own pace/timeline but you’ve got to deliver.

Jon: Tell us one thing about you that isn’t in any published bio.

Neil: There are many things people don’t know about me - one good one is that I loaded chickens into trucks in the middle of the night to pay for college.

Image credits: Images of Sailthru headquarters and Neil Capel provided by Sailthru.

Disclosure:  Sailthru paid part of my travel expenses for their analyst session in Boston. This interview was facilitated by Pluck PR. Sailthru and diginomica do not have a financial relationship.

A grey colored placeholder image