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Feeding the needs of today's experience-hungry customer

Technology has changed the way we human beings interact with the world. Everything is faster, easier, and smarter—and only getting more so each day. Take American Airlines, for example. The airline started using facial recognition technology on passengers at boarding gates to make traveling faster and more secure. Or consider Amazon’s investment in a hand biometric payment system in response to consumers finding facial recognition systems “creepy”—more speed, but with less fear of Big Brother.

As technology continues to advance, new previously impossible experiences become the new norm, and the end result is continuously rising customer expectations. Customers want goods and services perfectly tailored to their needs; however, they have little patience for businesses struggling to figure out how to meet these expectations. To keep customers happy and engaged, brands must meet current expectations, but also continue to improve and do more to get ahead of the competition.

Understanding customer expectations today

To make your customer experience strategy the most meaningful, it’s important to first understand the impact of technology on customer expectations. Today’s customer has all the power. All of it. The power dynamic has shifted away from brands, and businesses can no longer get away with providing customer experiences of the past—making customers wait, or repeat themselves, or communicate with you in the way your brand prefers. With so much information and technology available at their fingertips, customers are digitally resourceful and more critical about their customer experiences. In fact, research shows that instead of buying products that will withstand decades, customers now buy products and expect them to be updated as their needs evolve.

As technology continues to advance, new previously impossible experiences become the new norm, and the end result is continuously rising customer expectations.

The competition to retain customers is fierce. In the past, your business may have had a few outlets to compete against. Now, you’re competing against the world, with everything just a few taps on a mobile phone away. For customers, the cost to switch to another brand is low and continues to decrease. This is incredibly important to understand. With a world of tech-savvy competitors available right from the phone in your customer’s hand, customers can leave you in a heartbeat.

[Read also: Navigating the bumpy road to a seamless customer experience]

Not only is technology broadening the competitive landscape, it’s also making it easier than ever for customers to be brand agnostic. Brand affinity is still critical, but with so many brands out there to choose from, the noise is deafening. And as technology continues to evolve, these stratospheric customer expectations will continue to rise.

In fact, research shows that instead of buying products that will withstand decades, customers now buy products and expect them to be updated as their needs evolve.

Walking the customer experience tightrope

To meet this challenge of rising customer expectations, brands are faced with walking a tightrope high above the ground. Companies must balance meeting customer demands and maintaining the ability to execute, and must understand that customers:

  • want fast and convenient service, but don’t want to compromise on quality;
  • demand loyalty points, but have fleeting loyalty that can change based on a single bad experience;
  • are terrified of giving a company all their data, but expect highly personalized experiences tailored to their specific needs; and
  • don’t want you to spam them, but do expect a timely, relevant message in the channel they use most.

These conflicting desires can leave businesses feeling like they’re dangling midair. One misstep can be incredibly costly.

[Read also: Unlocking the potential for new customer experiences with 5G]

How can you create satisfying brand experiences?

So what can businesses do to provide customers with a great experience? Follow these three tenets:

Anticipate customer needs. Don’t wait to get a complaint. Brands should proactively communicate with customers throughout the entire customer experience, anticipating and solving customer problems. Did you, the brand, mess up? If so, it’s important to get ahead of the issue and own it. Identify problems in advance, and tell your customer about the problem and how you’ve resolved it before the customer even knows it happened. They will thank you.

For example, let’s say an item your customer ordered becomes delayed due to a third-party shipping mishap. Even though the problem is out of your control, how you handle the situation speaks volumes to your customer. Don’t force the customer to come to you asking about the status of the order—that’s way too late. The more you can proactively communicate, the better. Be transparent about the issue with honesty and empathy.

The more you can proactively communicate, the better. Be transparent about the issue with honesty and empathy.

Use your data for good, not bad. To be proactive, you’ll need access to customer data. That customer data is powerful because it enables you to understand your customers’ journey and help them be successful by guiding them to the right information at the right time. But that power, like any power, can be abused. So when using customer data to provide better and more personalized customer experiences, always ask yourself, “Would I be creeped out by this?” If the answer is yes (or even maybe), don’t do it. Personalization should balance technology with a human touch. Technology is there to enhance the experience, but it can’t replace the connection established by human interaction.

Many companies leverage data and focus on personalization to provide a better experience for their customers. Spotify is a great example—the company updated its playlist ecosystem earlier this year to make playlists highly personalized based on a listener's taste, which is both a win for customers and a win for artists hoping to get their music in front of the right listeners. When you use data well, the experience feels personal and a little like magic.

Provide customers with one seamless conversation with you, the brand. Customers increasingly don't care if they're communicating with your sales team or your marketing team or your support team or any team—they think of your company as one brand. And because of this, they will reward your brand with their loyalty if you do a high quality job of communicating across departments, or penalize you if you don’t.

When using customer data to provide better and more personalized customer experiences, always ask yourself, "Would I be creeped out by this?"

What defines high-quality communication across departments? These conversations are timely and personalized based on the end user’s profile, recent usage, and needs. And they’re also seamless across channels of communication—email, social, phone, etc.—as well as across departments—sales, marketing, support, etc.

With this expectation in mind, it's critical that brands start to think as one brand and communicate as one brand—one consistent voice across the entire business.

[Read also: Simple and sophisticated: the "mullet" imperative of seamless CX]

Too often, companies fail to understand the full context of a customer’s needs and fall flat on their face. For example, your marketing team may send out an email encouraging a customer to buy more of a product... right after the same company’s customer service team fields a complaint from the customer that the product doesn’t work. The result is a sloppy customer experience and an unhappy customer.

With this expectation in mind, it's critical that brands start to think as one brand and communicate as one brand—one consistent voice across the entire business.

Advances in data and technology should enable businesses to avoid this problem and operate as one brand. By putting all customer data in a single customer data platform, businesses can empower teams to understand what other departments are doing so that they can create more personalized and cohesive communications. So now, if customer support fields a complaint from a customer about how hard a product is to use, marketing can instead trigger an apology discount and offer a free training for that product.

Of course, the idea of seamless cross-departmental communication from one brand is still very aspirational—most companies still struggle to provide proactive and personalized communications at the individual departmental level, let alone across departments.

So what’s the future of customer experience? We’re not there yet, but we have a lot to aspire to, and we must strive to at least meet these ideals at a minimum. The good news for all of us is that, as much as technology is fueling the changing landscape of customer expectations, it will also help us to get there.

Jeff currently leads Zendesk's marketing organization. He brings 18 years of experience leading marketing, product marketing, and conversion and retention optimization from early-stage startups to enterprise companies. Prior to Zendesk, Jeff led engagement marketing at Adobe. He has also served as CMO at 99designs and VP of Marketing at Zoosk and holds a B.A. in English and Economics from Cornell University.

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