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Top organizations that engage customers at a high level benefit from business leaders who work hand-in-hand with IT to use data creatively.

Think this describes your company? Don't be too sure. In its recent study Closing the Customer Experience Gap, Harvard Business Review Analytic Services found that only 15% of executives rated their organizations as "very effective" when it comes to delivering superior customer experiences.

In other words, the vast majority of American companies suffer a gap between the experiences they deliver and what customers expect. With so few companies nailing the customer experience, leaders stand out, creating a competitive advantage in bare-knuckled markets like retail.

If you're ready to lead your company to develop the highest level of customer engagement and experience, check out these four lessons learned from the top 15%:

 

1. Create a Customer-Centric Culture and Focus on Centralized Customer Intelligence

 

High performing organizations unite systems and resources to develop a single source of intelligence for every customer. Not many get to this point: According to the Harvard Business Review (HBR), only 13% possess this sort of infrastructure today and only 30% are actively working on building it. The other half are either evaluating requirements (28%) or haven't begun to address the issue (22%) — that may be because it requires commitment and creativity to develop a shared database that captures everything from mobile to social and ecommerce data. As the VP of customer experience for a logistics terminal operator told HBR researchers,"It's an ongoing process to rationalize and clean up the data [and generate insight]."

 

2. Become More Capable and Agile in Leveraging Customer Data

 

Organizations that excel in creating superior experiences operate out of core principles that put the customer at the center. How? A multi-billion dollar institutional investment and benefits provider brings this idea to life with a chief customer officer who's not only responsible for working with IT, but also for leading a dedicated team of customer experience experts to leverage data and put it to proper use. Centralizing responsibility in this way ensures critical needs don't fall victim to shifting priorities in other departments. "Our ability to create change rapidly as it relates to a better customer experience across this large organization requires a very agile approach and mindset," the CCO told HBR's researchers.

 

3. Use Emerging Technologies to Create Personalized and Omni-Channel Experiences

 

Good customer experience leaders know that IT experts do much more than maintain existing systems. They're also the key to migrating from outdated, legacy infrastructure to more advanced tools for creating deeply personal experiences delivered across multiple channels — from mobile and social to email and desktop browsers. True leaders don't take this challenge lightly. "[Legacy infrastructure] is the biggest impediment to delivering fast improvement to customers," said a customer experience leader for a global financial services firm during his interview with HBR.

 

4. Use Data to Anticipate Consumer Needs

 

Is all this effort worth it? HBR's research leaves little doubt that there's much to be gained by striving for leadership. Specifically, four out of ten of the customer experience leaders HBR identified said they were able to act quickly in using data to make enhancements to the customer experience. Partnering with IT, embracing advanced technology, and promoting a customer-first culture has given these organizations a competitive edge laggards may find difficult to overcome.

Transforming your company to deliver superior customer experiences takes time, experience, and insight to yield the greatest long-term benefit. Download the full HBR study now to get further advice for closing the customer experience gap in your own organization.