“New technologies have put customers in the driver’s seat of the marketplace — giving them power over which brands sink or swim in the digital age.”

According to Forrester, we’re five years into the Age of the Customer, in which newly empowered customers place elevated expectations on every interaction they have with brands.

As disruptive companies leverage breakthroughs in cloud, mobile, social, and artificial intelligence technology to deliver personalized, valuable, and immediate experiences, customers have more choices than ever. As a result, they grow to expect this superior experience from any business they engage with.

What’s more, Salesforce’s recent “State of the Connected Customer” report found that 70% of consumers now report that technology has made it easier than ever to take their business elsewhere — switching from brand to brand to find an experience that matches their expectations.

Forrester anticipates this challenging new environment will “place harsh and unfamiliar demands on institutions, requiring changes in how they develop, market, sell, and deliver products and services.”

The State of the Connected Customer report polled over 7,000 consumer and business buyers to learn exactly what those new expectations are — and how business leaders should repurpose their companies to respond. There are four core elements of the new baseline customer experience: immediacy, personalization, consistency, and anticipation.

Customers expect to be treated like a human, not a number.

There is a considerable opportunity for brands that are able to interact on an individual basis with customers — from personalizing marketing journeys, to providing informed and unique customer care, to better understanding a customer’s unique needs. Seventy-two percent of consumers and 89% of business buyers say they expect companies to understand their unique needs and expectations, while 66% of consumers say they’re likely to switch brands if they feel treated like a number, not an individual.

For those companies able to deliver this more human touch, the rewards are considerable. Delivering personalized experiences drives customer loyalty, with 70% of consumers saying a company’s understanding of their individual needs influences their loyalty, and 69% saying the same of personalized customer care. The issue is more pressing with business buyers, 82% of whom say personalized customer care influences loyalty.

Customers expect immediate, responsive service.

As connectivity becomes ubiquitous and customers grow used to conversational interactions with brands, immediacy has become vital. In the findings, 64% of consumers and 80% of business buyers said they expect companies to respond to and interact with them in real time. As the Millennial generation becomes more powerful in the marketplace, the issue will only become more pressing — 66% of Millennial consumers expect real-time responses and interactions, versus just 62% of Baby Boomers.

Meeting these expectations requires in the first instance a comprehensive, 360-degree view of each customer, so when interactions are initiated there is enough understanding for an accurate response. Second, business leaders must consider the viability of instant responses from a human workforce. Is the best solution a radical increase in headcount in customer-facing departments, or the deployment of chatbots and other AI-powered technology?

Again, matching expectations will have a considerable impact on customer lifetime value and churn, given 80% of consumers report that immediate responses to requests influence their loyalty to a given brand.

Customers expect consistency.

For many companies, several different departments clamour to own the customer, with marketing, sales, and service being three of the most common. Any decision on organizational structure changes must have at its core the ability for the company to deliver a seamless experience for the customer, regardless of the challenges behind the scenes. Seventy-five percent of consumers expect consistent experiences across multiple channels (web, mobile, in-person, social), with 73% likely to switch brands if they don’t get it. Customer loyalty — and attrition — is determined by every experience.

Predictive, anticipatory service is increasingly the norm.

As customers look to the future, they increasingly expect companies to leverage their data to provide anticipatory services. By 2020, 75% of business buyers expect companies that can anticipate their needs and make relevant suggestions before they initiate contact, while 73% expect that products they purchase will self-diagnose issues and automatically order replacement parts or service.

For a company to effectively predict and prescribe actions for their customers, the ability to both manage existing customer data effectively and deploy new machine learning algorithms to make predictions is increasingly important.

Customers will share personal data — in exchange for better service.

Given the imperative for companies to deploy artificial intelligence algorithms to meet anticipated customer expectations, it’s fortunate that customer stances on sharing their personal data are softening.

Sixty-one percent of Millennials are happy to share personal data if it leads to a more personalized in-store or online shopping experience, while 58% will share personal data to power product recommendations that match their needs. 

The rapid evolution of customer expectations is made clear when we compare the Millennial approach to that of Baby Boomers, for whom only 41% are willing to share data for personalized shopping experiences.

A perfect storm is ahead.

Business leaders are faced with the prospect that as Millennials come to dominate the market, customer expectations will increase still further. The company that can’t efficiently and effectively transform customer data into personalized and predictive customer experiences is ripe for disruption by new technology-powered innovators.

This article was published in conjunction with Salesforce’s “State of the Connected Customer” report. Download a full copy of the report below.