“You are caller number 10; please stay on the line.” A few years ago, a phone message like this from a company was a standard part of the customer experience.
But today, customers expect more. They expect callback options. They expect to open a chat window on your website, or send a text message or a Tweet, and get a near-instant reply. They expect that you already know who they are when they call, that you’re aware of their most recent order, and that you understand what they need next. They don’t want to repeat their information. And they definitely don’t want to wait.
For customer experience in 2019, this is the new normal. Twenty-five years since the popularization of the internet and 12 years after the introduction of the iPhone, customer expectations keep soaring. Customers don’t just want the right product at the right price — they want the full package. In fact, 84% of customers say the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services.
84% of customers say the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services.” Salesforce Research | State of the Connected Customer report
As products become less distinguishable by brand and price, providing a great customer experience has become essential for companies to differentiate themselves. Here are some ideas and strategies for doing just that.
Understanding customer experience
“Customer experience” gets thrown around a lot, but how’s it actually defined?
“Customer experience and service have converged,” said Peter Schwartz, Salesforce Senior Vice President of Strategic Planning. “It’s more than call centers and successful responses to problems; it is service opportunities in sales, support, and marketing. Delivering great customer experiences now means providing amazing almost magical service at every opportunity.”
For example, think back to the last time you called your cable company, filed an insurance claim, or booked a vacation. When you were done, how did it feel? Was the overall experience easy and enjoyable — or headache-inducing? What did you think of the company that provided the experience?
We’re not just talking about the customer service you received — the customer experience is broader and deeper than that. What’s important is the total perception of the company, interaction by interaction, from the first touchpoint to the last. This may include navigating the website, talking to sales reps over the phone, visiting a store, sampling a product or service, and experiencing an onboarding phase after a purchase.
The point is that at every one of these moments, customers form judgements about whether a company is living up to their expectations, and making it easy and enjoyable for them to do business with. In other words, customer experience is the sum of all these interactions.
Why is customer experience important?
Customers have always wanted a consistently good buying experience and the best value they can get — but the stakes are higher these days. Technological advances (i.e., the Fourth Industrial Revolution) have led to disruption across every industry. This has given customers greater choice and greater freedom to take their business elsewhere if they’re not receiving the experience they expect. Not happy buying expensive razor blades? Why not sign up for an inexpensive monthly subscription and have them delivered to your door? Fed up with mediocre hotel chains that don’t offer value for money? Why not try AirBnB?
The rise of social media and review websites such as Tripadvisor and Yelp also give consumers more of a voice than ever before if a company provides a poor experience. Whereas consumers might have shared a bad experience with friends and family in the past, social media means they can amplify experiences — for better or worse — to a much wider audience.
Together, these factors have given consumers an upper hand in their dealings with companies.
Customer experience isn’t a new concept, but it’s never been more relevant. Our research shows that salespeople — once overwhelmingly focused on closing transactions — now track customer satisfaction more than any other metric. Nearly half of marketers — once mainly concerned with driving new leads — now champion customer experience initiatives across their entire companies.
The reason? A large majority of customers (84% per new research) believe the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services. Providing service with a smile isn’t enough. The same report shows that 73% of customers expect companies to understand their needs and expectations.
At the same time, a standout experience with one company is also prompting 73% of customers to hold other companies to higher standards. The Amazons and AirBnbs of the world are changing customer definitions of “good customer experience” in a way that transcends industry.
The good news? Great experiences reap great rewards, with 66% of customers now willing to pay a premium for them. This means that businesses have an opportunity to increase revenue by delighting their customers in a way that no one else can.
What makes a bad customer experience?
Customers think many companies haven’t caught up with their new standards. Only 51% of customers say companies understand their needs and expectations. And even fewer (47%) believe companies adapt to their actions and behavior.
Just as with friendships, customer relationships bloom when individuals feel understood. If a friend ignores a call, text, or email, it probably doesn’t bode well for the overall relationship. Likewise, relationships can weaken when customers feel that businesses don’t appreciate their personal preferences, whether that’s remembering they enjoy romantic comedies, or that they would rather be contacted by email than by phone.
A lack of trust can also derail a customer’s experience before it even gets started. While customer data is an essential part of delivering personalized experiences, customers need to know that if they choose to hand their data over, it will be safe, and used legitimately, in a manner that’s beneficial to them.
As questionable business practices make headlines, customers are growing ever more selective about the brands they trust. In fact, 54% of customers say it’s harder than ever for a company to earn their trust. And this has a real and lasting business impact; 65% of customers have stopped buying from companies that did something they find untrustworthy.
Businesses that clearly articulate how they use their customers’ data can gain and keep their trust. Seventy-eight percent of customers are more loyal to companies that are transparent about how they use customer data.
A company’s trustworthiness also represents something bigger: its values. Increasingly, customers are considering what a company stands for when deciding whether or not to buy from them. The same study found that 77% of customers said an increased awareness of corporate values, ethics, and business practices was changing their expectations as customers.
What does a great customer experience look like?
One challenge for companies trying to get this right is that customer expectations keep soaring. Increasingly, customers want experiences that are connected, memorable, and differentiated. We’ll talk through examples of each.
Connected customer experience
Our research shows that more than two-thirds (69%) of customers expect a connected experience when they engage with a company. This means that their preferences are known across touchpoints and interactions, and any required information can be quickly accessed. For example, in a customer’s mind, a service agent should know the details of any recent ecommerce transaction they made, and engage accordingly. Salesforce found 78% of customers now expect these kinds of consistent interactions across departments.
U.S. Bank recently took the step of connecting all of its employees with a single, unified database of customer information. The solution also allows the bank to turn raw data into high-value insights, which can be used to drive decision-making, and personalize its financial offerings for customers.
Customer relationships had previously been built within individual business units such as banking, mortgages, investments and payments, even though customers often dealt with multiple business units. This led to disjointed and often unsatisfactory customer experience. By approaching customer relationships as a single business, employees now have an aligned and complete view of their customers’ interactions with the entire company. This allows them to create a unified customer experience across all business lines and strengthen relationships with customers.
In turn, customers now have an easier time accessing financial services across all channels, including mobile devices, personal computers, ATMs and 3,000 branches across 25 states.
Memorable customer experience
It’s not enough for businesses to provide personalized customer experience, they need to do it in a way that helps them stand out from all the other companies trying to do the same thing.
European brand Brunello Cucinelli creates high-end clothing for men and women. However, in the age of the digital shopper, the brand found maintaining its personal touch challenging. It needed to find a way to bring the personalized experiences it was known for in its stores to its online outlets as well.
The company’s solution was to implement what its leaders have dubbed “graceful technology” — a centralized system that enables it to build stronger, more personal relationships with customers. Featuring easily accessible customer order histories and automated workflows, the system is helping store managers to expedite online customer service needs. This in turn enables employees to spend more time building relationships with shoppers. Customers can also receive in-store service regardless of where they connect.
Since adopting its new solution, the business has quadrupled ecommerce revenues. Brunello Cucinelli has successfully translated the luxury experience to the digital realm — and in the process, set new customer experience standards for the mass market.
Differentiated customer experience
Customers want businesses to treat them like the individuals they are and receive tailored engagement, based on their unique needs. While niche brands were the first to offer differentiated customer experiences, this is now the expectation people have of mass-market companies as well.
Take Piedmont Healthcare for example. With the U.S. healthcare industry shifting to a “value-based” model, the healthcare provider was under pressure to improve patient outcomes meet growing patient expectations and by offering more personalized medicine. To do this, Piedmont Healthcare realized it needed to embrace technology to help it engage with patients and assist them to get easier access to care, by personalizing how the company connects with them.
The organization’s solution was to implement an integrated cloud-based system to capture patients’ information and create comprehensive patient profiles.
Piedmont Healthcare’s solution also gives the company better insights into its relationships with both patients and physicians. This enables them to use data-driven insights to create high-quality, personalized marketing communications for both groups. Sales staff can also use the system to deliver personalized messages to physicians at scale, track engagement, nurture leads and follow up with greater speed.
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What’s the future of customer experience?
With success stories such as these making the market acutely aware of what’s possible, 75% of customers now expect companies to use new technologies to create better experiences. Peter Schwartz believes businesses will eventually use AI to achieve a step change in customer experience, turning a “comprehensive trove of data into insights that can anticipate customers’ needs and act as their digital assistant.
He uses the example of a frequent business traveler who walks into a hotel room to be greeted by her favorite song playing, photos of her family in digital frames, and an email in her inbox asking if she wants the Caesar salad, without croutons, she ordered from room service last time. The temperature and lighting are set to her preferred levels, and when she turns on the television, it suggests a movie she’s yet to see, starring her favorite actress. A rental car of the model she’s considering buying is available at the hotel.
“This isn’t marketing to a category of consumers,” Schwartz says. “It’s applying AI and all the customer data to cater to the needs of a single individual, which is much more powerful.
Glen Hartman, Senior Managing Director, Digital Transformation, for Accenture Interactive, has also described the potential for unprecedented levels of customer immersion. “Say you usually do your grocery shopping on a Saturday morning. You use the store’s app, you belong to its loyalty program, and perhaps you’ve even attended a do-it-yourself cooking class there. So, they know you well,” he says.
“When you walk in the door, the store knows you’re there through location technology. They can see the shopping list you created using its app. Delivering a real-time personalized experience in this context could mean the store saying, ‘Listen, we notice you’re shopping for these three ingredients. If you added these other things, you could make this recipe.’
“They could even show you a video of what the recipe looks like, right on your phone. Then they might upsell you on some other things to have a great dinner that night. So, you stay longer in the store and add to your shopping cart, and the store says, ‘That’s a successful shopping trip.’”
Hartman stresses that people also expect the brands they love to understand their wants and needs in context — otherwise, it’s easy to miss the point and end up alienating customers. As he points out, if that same customer came back with the goal of quickly picking up some medicine for a sick child, for instance, and was offered all kinds of coupons and additional ingredient suggestions, their experience would clearly be less than optimal.
How can companies improve customer experience?
There are shelves of books devoted to answering this question. However, the advice can be distilled down to two pieces of advice.
- Instill a customer-focused mindset in your employees. Putting the customer at the heart of your business — from marketing to point-of-sale procedures and after-sales follow-ups — needs to start with senior management using their leadership to drive “customer obsession” from the top down. Make customer obsession principles part of executive conversations and business planning — during pipeline reviews, inside shareholder meetings, and throughout the business development process. Encourage teams to adopt an “outside-in” approach, where people put themselves in their customer’s shoes. Ask what their needs are, what’s driving their decision-making, what their goals are, and what they’re feeling.
- Consider getting started with AI. As we’ve described above, implementing AI represents a sea change in the kind of customer experience your company can deliver. As a starting-point, get clear on the specific business question you want AI to answer. Once you’ve defined specific use cases for AI, consider how existing workflows would be impacted and who would need to be reskilled.
The use of AI in customer service may be nascent, with just under one-quarter (24%) of service teams using it today. However, the fact that 62% of customers are open to companies using AI to improve the experience they receive signals a growing role for use cases such as chatbots, text and voice analytics, and more. In fact, AI adoption by service teams is forecast to surge by 143% over the next 18 months.
Remember that today’s connected customers are more knowledgeable, are keenly aware of the high levels of service that new technology enables, and have limited patience for brands that can’t keep up with evolving standards. Delivering outstanding experiences today isn’t a luxury – it’s the expectation. Aim to overshoot those expectations to be rewarded with customer loyalty and repeat business.
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