Customers expect more than ever

This is one of the most exciting times for the world of customer experience, both as a consumer and as a commercial player. At no point in history have there been so many possibilities for the consuming public to get up close and personal with brands in ways never thought possible before.

Fashionistas now point and click their phone at catwalk pieces and an app called Blippar identifies the clothing, which can be delivered within 24 hours. You can tour IKEA kitchens for free at home, virtually, using a gaming headset and at Radisson Blu hotels, guests text a chatbot to make in-room requests.

Technology to the rescue

“We’re now seeing the perfect storm, there’s been an exponential jump in the deployment of technology,” explains Hendrik Kleinsmiede, co-founder of Visa Europe Collab. “There are many more possibilities for customer experiences and there is a maturity in the tech, as well as a familiarity among businesses and consumers about how best to use it.”

Super web-savvy shoppers are particularly driving change; you can blame it on the millennials, those born post-1980, or the rise of the experience economy. Unlike their parents who measured success by accumulating material goods, this growing cohort, which will be the biggest group of spenders by 2020, gauge success by collating experiences. For example, we now spend more on holidays, restaurants and days out than on shoes or clothes.

Technology is shaking up behaviour too; it has driven price transparency from flights to furniture, food to finance. “So for a brand, what is your unique selling point, if it’s not price? The only difference is the experience,” says Nick White, group digital director at Thomas Cook Group Airlines. Smartphone penetration, now more than 80 per cent in the UK, is also driving change.

Offering something original

Anyone who needs to attract consumers is jumping on this bandwagon in order to charge a premium. They are, therefore, differentiating themselves by offering customer experiences that are hard to replicate.

Take Thomas Cook’s Little Lifts campaign; it offers airport hangar tours and kids’ entertainment while families wait in the queue. It’s also using cats on social media to promote their revamped planes. Kellogg’s opened their first cereal café in New York featuring cornflakes with unique ingredients such as pistachio nuts, green tea powder and lemon zest, concocted by celebrity chefs.

thomas cook

Thomas Cook is one brand getting originality right

“It is all about something cool, something original, including fresh collaborations and mash-ups, as well as the coupling of new ideas and services. The fact is customer expectations have gone through the roof. Everyone wants a richer, authentic experience,” says Mr Kleinsmiede.

Consumers are now operating on the web, on social media, on mobile and chat, so-called omnichannel shopping. It means if they have a good experience on one channel with one company, they start to question why they aren’t getting it with another.

“There is now universality about people’s experiences,” says Ed Beard, strategy partner at agency Kitcatt Nohr. “Consumers have the same expectations of all the brands across all channels, so there’s a lot of pressure, especially on the big corporates.”

Personalisation and big data

The industry chatter this year is about hyper-personalisation, which involves offering a highly individual and compelling proposition with frictionless delivery. It is imperative for brands to offer customers a shopping experience that is unique to them through data-driven applications. Not just a named header on an e-mail.

“Most airlines still don’t say ‘hello Nick welcome back, welcome on board’. Many industries have a long way to go before they banish the impersonal customer experience. Touchpoints are so important. Yet the technology is there; the potential for personalisation is enormous,” says Mr White.

This is why successful companies are ramping up their big data capabilities. They are also using predictive analytics to offer something personal, as well as leveraging location-based services to embed themselves within customers’ lives. For instance, John Lewis is using geo-fencing technology to ensure orders are ready for collection when it can see the customer is nearby.

The industry chatter this year is about hyper-personalisation, which involves offering a highly individual and compelling proposition with frictionless delivery

“Going forward, being a successful brand will have less to do with having actual physical inventory or infrastructure and more to do with building a community that connects consumers with the products they want and each other,” says Teo Correia, senior managing director, consumer goods and services, at Accenture.

Forget business to consumer, or B2C, it is now about Me2B. Rather than a company chasing the consumer, the customer now has control and initiates the engagement. “Conversational commerce is such a big phenomenon right now,” explains Mr Kleinsmiede.

A number of technologies are demonstrating their disruptive powers across the industry, including augmented and virtual reality, wearable devices, digital payment and cognitive computing; although, it is how they’re being used that really matters.

One of the biggest challenges is making it all relevant to a consumer’s personal journey through the retail experience. “Being able to meet the customer exactly where they want to be is still a challenge for companies,” says Michelle Du-Prât, experience strategy director at Household. “This means thinking differently about how customers want to interact and the journey itself.”

It seems the only certainty in the customer experience industry at the moment is change.