It’s an oft-repeated refrain on the Hanlon Creative Blog, but it can’t be overstated: the times they are a-changin’. Technology is upending pretty much every industry and marketing is no exception.

Businesses and brands that once competed only with a few local rivals are now faced with the prospect of competing with the whole world thanks to the internet and other globalizing trends.

Products and services that were once hard to find have become commoditized and available from numerous sources. Consumers have incredible tools at their disposal for finding what they want and for comparing the prices and features of their options… and when they are pleased (or displeased) with their purchase they have extensive social networks to voice their opinions.

In today’s marketplace it’s not enough to just offer a great product at a fair price, brands that want to differentiate themselves have to deliver a superior customer experience as well.

 

Smiling Faces

Walmart, a company that made its name on low prices, not customer experiences, is even coming around to this reality. Shoppers fed up with disorganized shelves, messy bathrooms, and unhelpful employees were voting with their pocketbooks. Revenue fell in 2015 for the first time since the megastore went public nearly half a century ago.

The company quickly set in motion a plan to right the ship. Salaries were increased to lower the turnover rate and attract higher quality applicants, and a small army of trainers were dispatched to teach (or reteach) Walmart team members the art of providing a great customer experience. The change seems to be working.

Customer surveys have been improving, “with ‘clean, fast, friendly scores’ rising for 90 consecutive weeks.”

One of the keys to good CX is understanding your customer’s expectations. You don’t have to fulfill every single need they might have a hundred percent of the time, but you do need to exceed their expectations. For example, a low-cost motel doesn’t need an English butler and crystal chandeliers in every room to exceed its guests expectations. It can do that with a courteous, friendly staff, clean rooms, and a complimentary muffin.

Some factors affecting customer satisfaction won’t be directly controllable. Retail outlets can control their internal environments: the lighting, music, signage, product displays, staff protocols, etc. that make for a pleasant shopping experience.

But, the external environment matters as well. It won’t matter how inviting your staff is or how soothing the ambiance is if your store is in a run-down shopping center next to a boarded-up building. CX is a holistic metric, and every detail matters.

 

OPTIMIZING TOUCHPOINTS

Managing customer experiences is clearly the path ahead for top brands. According to a 2015 Gartner survey, 89% of companies expect to compete with others on the basis of customer experience alone– compared to just 34% four years earlier.

Customer Experience (CX) refers to how satisfied a company’s customers are with it. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) refers to the tools companies use to monitor and improve customer satisfaction.

According to Jeananne Rae at “Bloomberg”: “Building great consumer experiences is a complex enterprise, involving strategy, integration of technology, orchestrating business models, brand management and CEO commitment.” CRM provides the means of systematizing the process and getting all those moving parts in sync with the overall goal.

The customer’s experience is a holistic overview of every stage of the buyer’s journey from awareness to consideration to decision to purchase and use. Each stage is a touchpoint, an opportunity to interact with a customer or potential customer and provide them with a rewarding experience.

And there’s still plenty of room to do just that because, while, 80% of business say that offer a “great customer experience,” only 8% of customers express high levels of satisfaction according to a Bain & Company survey.

 

HAPPY CUSTOMERS = STRONG BRAND

Consumer satisfaction is built by fulfilling the needs of a customer at each stage. Those needs come in variety of forms and vary by industry, buyer persona, and how far along the purchase process they are. They can be rational, emotional, sensorial, physical, and even spiritual.

Every time a retail team member interfaces with a shopper, or a salesperson speaks to a potential client on the phone, or a service center fields emails from purchasers with questions or complaints the brand has an opportunity to satisfy those needs and in doing so build or strengthen relationships with the customers.

Brands today live and die based on those relationships. When customers are unhappy, unsatisfied, and unfulfilled the brand takes a hit as they leave and tell others to do the same. When the CX is well managed, window-shoppers become customers and customers become advocates, and the brand grows stronger.

According to Jessica Sebor of “CRM Magazine”: “loyalty is now driven primarily by a company’s interaction with its customers and how well it delivers on their wants and needs.”

The mission then is clear: do everything you can to stimulate your customers senses, prove to them that you provide more than just widgets at the market rate, and make them feel welcomed and appreciated by fulfilling their needs for a great experience.