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Customer experience grows up

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By now, we’ve all accepted the “difficult decisions” announced during this year’s Budget Speech: higher VAT and other taxes, an increase in the fuel levy, and more so-called sin and luxury taxes. Even as the country basks in the glow of a new Presidency  and Cabinet, businesses can’t afford to ignore that consumers are likely to be pickier with their limited cash. Same dance, different year.

Common wisdom insists that this should pose no problem for innovation-savvy organisations, right? Just make sure your loyalty programme’s in place, come up with some clever digital campaigns, offer up free gym bags, and you’re golden.

Except, if you look around, those customer-centric strategies that used to be differentiators aren’t quite so special anymore. Just about everybody has a rewards programme in place, and customers stopped being impressed by free coffees ages ago.

With each passing year, omnichannel customer service and personalised experiences have become the norm. Strategic partnerships with disruptors, like UberEATS, have become so ubiquitous that they’re no longer considered innovative.

Meet the empowered consumer

It wasn’t that long ago that marketing distinguished between passive and active consumers. The former were those people who docilely consumed media, didn’t really get involved in conversations on social media, and suffered poor customer service in silence. The active consumers, meanwhile, were never afraid to share their opinions on social media, created their own content, and actively sought out new media and services.

Somewhere along the way, however, the lines between the two became blurred. Online retailers began sending everyTwo unique recommendations based on their buying habits, and personalised streaming services supplanted physical media consumption. There isn’t just Two Netflix – there are effectively 117 million of them, each delivering an experience uniquely tailored to each subscriber.

As if being able to curate your own content wasn’t enough, many companies are inviting users to help generate it as well. Take Amazon and Twitch’s “choose your own adventure” TV shows, which allow viewers to steer the plot direction.

A typical consumer now owns an average of three mobile devices and five social media accounts, most of them actively used. Interactive engagement with digital channels isn’t the exception – it’s the norm. With individuals’ ever-growing role in shaping their content experiences, there’s no such thing as a passive consumer anymore. And this expectation for à la carte experiences is naturally spilling over into other aspects of their lives, from retail to healthcare and public services.

Just look at the numbers: A full 86% of consumers value personalised offers from their travel providers. Three quarters of consumers are more likely to choose retailers that offer personalised recommendations, know their purchase history, or recognise them by name. Some 58% of South African consumers agree that they like it when a website keeps track of their visits and recommends relevant things to them.

The problem is that many South African organisations are still stuck in the mindset that personalised content is enough, when consumers are really looking for personalised experiences. If your Facebook feed can understand your likes and dislikes so well, what’s stopping every other brand in your life from doing the same?

Why customer experience needs to be experiential

What does it take to deliver truly customer-centric experiences in an age of hyper-personalisation? Most important is how well you know and serve your customers, using a mix of automation, analytics and contextualisation.

Take Emirates, which teamed up with Spotify to create personalised playlists and destination suggestions for travellers. Or KLM, which lets customers shape their own inflight menu, and dictate exactly when meals should be served

In the automotive industry, virtual showrooms are springing up around the world. Jeep has taken it Two step further by considering how VR and AR could allow drivers to personalise their cars during the production phase. With IoT increasingly playing a role in our lives, just about any object you can think of becomes a potential channel for service delivery. A great example of this in play is Domino’s digital ordering tool, available across a staggering number of platforms, including SMS, Google Home, Amazon Alexa, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Slack, Ford Sync, Apple Watch, Android Wear, Pebble and Samsung Smart TV.

Also consider the Douwe Egberts coffee machines that were installed in O.R. Tambo International Airport. The brand used facial recognition technology to register when people were yawning in front of it and dispensed a free cup of coffee.

Now imagine that same creativity applied to everyday functionality rather than a once-off marketing campaign. What if your smartwatch could tell your nearest coffee shop when you were tired and pre-order your favourite brew on your behalf? Or what about a car that literally pulls over when it notices your eyelids drooping?

As exciting as these future applications might be, it requires a trusting and mutually respectful relationship with your customers. To get people on board, they need to want to share their data. If you’re not creating experiences with clear value-driven outcomes for customers, you might as well not create them at all.

Identifying those touchpoints where you can bring in consumers as active co-creators of their own experience requires a mix of creative thinking and deep understanding of your own technological capabilities. It’s why, if hyper-personalised customer experience is ever going to become the norm in your organisation, marketing and IT needs to unify around customer experience.

How do you think customer experience is going to evolve over the next year? And which businesses do you think are really getting personalised, proactive customer experiences right?