Today’s customers expect — if not demand — highly personalized experiences, but what are the exact starting points that companies can use if they want to create a better customer experience? That’s a question we asked Catharine Findiesen Hays, co-author (with Yoram “Jerry” Wind) of Beyond Advertising: Creating Value Through All Customer Touchpoints.

Previously, Hays was the founding Executive Director of the Wharton Future of Advertising Program, a leading international research center that bridged advertising practitioners and academics. She also led pioneering marketing, sales, and strategy teams during a 15-year career at AT&T.

In this post, Hays sets out five issues business leaders should consider when it comes to developing exceptional customer experience capabilities. Her vision also includes insights on why personalization is not always the answer, and how companies can navigate the inevitable tension between the benefits of more customization and a respect for individual privacy. For more insights from Catharine Hays, check out her Leading Edge Video Interview on why agility, innovation, and collaboration are core to the customer experience.

Think of empowered people, not empowered consumers

Thanks to the proliferation of digital devices and platforms, today’s customers are more connected than ever. With unprecedented access to data at their fingertips, they are becoming much more well-informed about brands and their buying choices. Not only is this new breed of customer more discerning, they increasingly expect a superior experience from any business they engage with. They want that superior brand experience to travel with them as well, as they move across channels, offline, and back.

 For Hays, winning in this environment starts with companies understanding the current and potential customer as an empowered individual, not just another consumer. That means considering individuals’ lives, aspirations, and choices. It also means understanding the many different modes and environments each person moves through, all day and every day.

“People expect to be able to engage across multiple touchpoints anytime and seamlessly transition between them,” she said. “So, companies need a full picture of what that journey looks like for any individual, and understand their pain points. Very simplistically, if I have already bought a particular pair of boots advertised to me, I don’t want to be retargeted by that same ad for weeks afterward. Also, if I give you any information about me, it’s vital that you respect and safeguard that data and use it responsibly — and that you remember it! I don’t want, for example, to have to keep entering my account number each time I visit your website or get transferred to another rep.”

Make every experience as great as the customer’s last experience

Generally, our expectations as customers are set by the last positive interaction we had, and for Hays, as with many of us right now, that’s been with Amazon. “In my case, Amazon’s team delivers a weekly message suggesting products I might like based on my purchase and browsing history — a seemingly simple digital service that’s also intuitive and frictionless,” Hays said. Yet that seemingly simple interaction becomes a feedback loop, generating data that can help Amazon learn more about individual needs and respond in real time.

Continuous innovation is another part of the process. “Right now, Amazon’s platform is teaching me, as a consumer, how the voice interface works and helping me lean into that, and I expect it will take me somewhere new tomorrow. It’s consistently setting my expectations higher,” she explained.

The crucial point here is that every aspect of these evolving interactions is being built around Hays’ individual needs. “The relationship is being driven by what I want, when I want it, and how I want it,” as she put it.

Because of experiences like this with Amazon, people now subconsciously expect to get a similarly "wraparound" and intuitive response when they interact with other brands. This applies in both consumer and business-to-business worlds.

Develop prototypes and experiment with smart technologies

Of course, it’s more difficult to create that kind of wraparound experience if you don’t begin with a great understanding of how customers are interacting with your brand, what they enjoy about the interaction and what their pain points are.

Hays points to the new capabilities brought about by technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) that can help companies gain such an understanding. Machine learning applications, for instance, use smart capabilities to capture and analyze vast amounts of data on customer behaviors, adapting and learning in real time. “This can help companies understand, in the moment, the customer motivations that affect buying decisions,” Hays said. “It can help them better anticipate customer needs and build relationships that can drive ever more compelling experiences.”

At the same time, companies need to remember that customers want to be treated like human beings, not data points. “Customers don’t come with levers that can be pulled with predictable results. The way we experience things is much more multisensory and complex than that,” she said.

Creativity must play a central part in any experience design process, to ensure the human angle is there from the outset. That means businesses must look to integrate their analytics, creative, and design capabilities. In Hays’ words: “It’s no longer about keeping brand conversations in silos, but about furthering cross-functional collaboration.”

This, in turn, links to further changes that must take place internally so companies can get a 360-degree understanding of their customers and reach them at the right place, the right time, and on the right platform. Companies need to embrace a business model that entrenches the customer’s needs as the central orientation point. This involves integrating digital technologies into every aspect of operations.

Consider customization instead of personalization

While customers expect companies to know their individual needs and to personalize the brand experience to meet them, Hays points out the danger of applying too narrow a lens in this regard.

“I tend to shy away from the word ‘personalization,’” she said. “I prefer ‘customization,’ because I think it better describes the value exchange — what people are willing to give up their data for. Maybe you’re sick of the music you listen to all the time and want to hear something from a completely different point of view. So, you’ll be looking to have recommendations customized in a way that’s right for you. You don’t want them personalized — you want something new.”

Hays also points out that the technology capturing customer data at scale doesn’t really know us as a person as much as it knows our behaviors. “It understands that as you interact with any product, these are the characteristics that move you in this direction or that direction. So, ‘customization’  just seems more accurate.”

Make data and privacy principles and safeguards paramount

While many people are comfortable providing relevant information about themselves in exchange for better experiences, a trust gap, when companies use customer data in ways that seem invasive or are simply irresponsible, can also threaten customer relationships.

Hays’ advice for business leaders as they negotiate this terrain is to demonstrate transparency and a commitment to protecting customer data from the outset.

“The stakes are higher now,” she said. “Through social media, the empowered individual has at their fingertips the opportunity to broadcast any missteps or misrepresentations they may experience with brands. Within organizations, whistleblowers now have access to platforms they can use to be heard around the world pretty quickly. So, for companies that get it wrong, there’s really no place to hide.”

At the same time, the only way to keep up with technology is to use technology. AI and other smart tools have the potential to create new solutions to data security issues. Machine learning, for instance, has the potential to transform how companies approach data security, offering new levels of automation and intelligence that get more efficient over time.

Get ready for a new era of responsible innovation

The trust gap can also affect a company’s ability to attract, retain, and grow talent. Increasingly, people are looking to businesses to deliver a sense of trust and responsibility in terms of the way they handle their data. “If they see that a company leads with values — if the ethos is clearly communicated and leaders ‘walk the talk’ — then that’s where they’ll want to work,” said Hays.

“So, I think leaders are increasingly saying, ‘We better step up.’ It’s the dawning of what Shelly Palmer has termed ‘the era of responsible innovation.’ Hays describes how in this new era, it’s now becoming more common for companies to develop programs to address healthcare education in underdeveloped areas or make a commitment to the environment, for instance. “Companies are realizing there is this opportunity — if not a responsibility — to be relevant and to create a net positive impact on culture and society, given the tremendous influence technology has on our daily lives, and that’s exciting.”

Five starting points for customer experience success:

  1. Imagine your audience as empowered people rather than consumers or clients, which is too narrow a lens.

  2. Make every experience with your brand as great as your audience’s last experience. (As a baseline, start with Amazon Prime.)

  3. Create prototypes and experiment with important new technologies and academic advances (such as AI, neuroscience, and biometrics) to learn, understand, and deliver on customer needs and desires.

  4. Consider customization instead of personalization. Understand the limits of your various audiences and ensure mutual value exchange.

  5. Be respectfully responsible. Make data and privacy principles and safeguards paramount from the outset —  and security everyone’s job.

Catharine Hays is one of the experts we’ve been interviewing about rising customer expectations — and the growing scrutiny of customer experience and trust — as we gear up for Connections, June 12–14 in Chicago. For more insight, check out her Leading Edge Video Interview on why agility, innovation, and collaboration are core to the customer experience; this article on why customer experience begins with understanding human nature; and this interview with Glen Hartman of Accenture on the power of empathy in creating personalized customer experiences.