A Look Back: 5 Customer Experience Trends from 2013Customer experience management has never been more comprehensive or sophisticated. And that's a good thing because customers have never been more demanding, connected or empowered — realities that became exceptionally clear this year.

Nobody puts consumers in the corner anymore — or anywhere else, for that matter — at least if they have long-term plans to stay in business. 2013 was the year customer experience management (CXM) matured and expanded, exploding from websites to mobile devices, brick-and-mortar stores, customer contact centers and more.

In retrospect, 2013 may go down as the year marketers shifted their focus from broad, amorphous groups of customers to targeted, personalized, omnichannel, shared experiences for each one. It was, in many ways, a seismic shift in attitude, powered by five key customer experience trends.

Understanding the Concept

Loni Kao Stark.jpg

Forrester defines customer experience as "how customers perceive their interactions with your company.” Good experiences are useful (deliver value), usable (make it easy to find and engage with the value) and enjoyable (emotionally engaging so that people want to use them). 

The concepts themselves are neither new nor surprising. But in the past few years, they have gained greater status as part of a broader business strategy. Digital technologies and the power of big data have persuaded companies to design, implement and manage customer experience in a disciplined way — to create business value.

"Customer experience has evolved from preventative to reactive," explained Loni Kao Stark, director of product and industry marketing for Adobe's Digital Marketing Solutions and a CMSWire contributor. "The goal has shifted from preventing bad experiences to creating delightful experiences. Companies want to make customers love their brands."

And they have new and creative ways to accomplish that objective, thanks to vast quantities of unstructured data generated by things like mobile devices with GPS and Internet connectivity, aerial sensors and sensor networks and social network interactions. Businesses now have the ability to process this data in real time for just-in-time decision making, as well as plumb the depths of it for insight and predictive analysis.

Adele Sweetwood

Big data, simply, has changed the concept and possibilities of customer experience. In an interview earlier this year, Adele Sweetwood, vice president of SAS Americas Marketing, told me all this data has resulted in  an "intense and very deliberate focus" on customer experience. It has opened doors and forged connections. She noted:

We need to look at all of their points of engagement: How do they react? How do they exchange information with us? When do they engage? How do we leverage what we know about them and use that to provide a better customer experience?”

Key CX Trends for 2013

To answer those questions, let's take a look at some of this year's leading CX trends.

1) Personalization: As big data has ballooned, so have the options to create more targeted and almost intimate messages, in the online world and beyond. Customers not only prefer personalized marketing — they expect it. By keeping marketing relevant — personalized, that is — it doesn't feel like spam to customers.

Personalization isn't new, but experts like Natasha Hritzuk, senior director of consumer insights at Microsoft, said it's still not being used to its potential. “Consumers are absolutely desperate for more personalization during their purchase journey," she said, citing findings from Microsoft’s latest Consumer Decision Journey Research, which it released in September. As analytic tools make it easier to gain insights from ever growing amounts of data, expect to see personalization become even more refined and relevant.

2) Channel convergence: Web chat. Email. Text messages. Customer contact centers. In-store displays. There are more channels and more opportunities to engage with customers and prospects than ever before, Customers are taking advantage of all the opportunities, mixing in-store visits, online product research and other information sources when making purchases large and small. In October, GfK released its annual Futurebuy study of global shopping habits that shows, across 12 categories, 37 percent of US shoppers -- and 29 percent globally -- use both online and in-store shopping when making purchases. The extent of this “omni-channel” shopping phenomenon varies by category and country and seems to be tied to the rise in mobile device penetration, Gfk noted.

SAS's Sweetwood defined both the challenge and the opportunity as the abilities of marketers to converge and align channel strategies. “Marketers need to leverage each channel effectively and take advantage of the data and information delivered from each channel – ‘listening’ to the effectiveness of that channel so that strategy can be adjusted as needed,” she stated in a blog post.

Omnichannel experience implies a consistent purchase or customer service experience across channels. But for now, few customers are "extremely satisfied" with the omnichannel customer experience. According to a recent Zendesk survey, 73 percent of consumers think companies are paying more attention to generating sales across multiple channels than in delivering a consistent and seamless customer service experience.

3) Mobile: Mobile commerce has gone from a theoretical possibility to a practical imperative. Marketers don't have to look any further than the statistics from Black Friday to understand that.

Just this month, comScore confirmed US smartphone ownership reached a new all-time high in the quarter ending October 31. Data from comScore MobiLens and Mobile Metrix, which reports key trends in the US smartphone industry, confirmed 149.2 million people in the US owned smartphones (62.5 percent mobile market penetration), up 4.1 percent from the quarter that ended in July.

As smartphone and tablet use grows, customers are demanding richer and more personalized mobile customer experiences. But they aren't necessarily getting it. Earlier this month, Responsys released the findings a survey that suggests retailers "may be missing opportunities to better connect with their consumers through relevant, real-time and location-based mobile marketing.” The survey found:

… highly relevant mobile messages can prompt consumers to follow through with purchases, particularly when those messages are part of an orchestrated customer experience that unfolds over time, across channels and according to an individual’s behaviors and preferences."

4) Shared Experiences: Brian Solis, a principal analyst at Altimeter Group, a research firm focused on disruptive technology, as well as an author and blogger, has a vision of the future that involves shared experiences – the tweets, blogs, posts, comments, photos and reviews that customers share in this age of connectivity.

His message for marketers is clear: Focus on shared experiences because that's what really matters. The collective voice of these shared experiences can often trump your product or service -- and your most clever and creative marketing, he noted. As he explained on Google Think Insights:

As a brand you have to create the experiences you want people to have and share, and reinforce that through positive conditioning, so those are the things people find — over and over again. To get people to share more positive things, you have to first make sure they have a positive experience. This is a renaissance opportunity for brands to look back: ‘Why did we start this company? What are we trying to do?’ Because in the social web, it is those experiences that become your brand.”

Brian Solis shared experiences.jpgImage by Brian Solis/Altimeter Group.

5) Video Everywhere: From websites to retail stores and beyond, video is enhancing the customer experience. Videos on websites are excellent ways to showcase products and services and engage with people. It's also a way to add something extra -- a wow factor -- to the in-store experience. Dharmendra Patel, managing director of in-store digital technology provider PlayNetwork, said, "Live video content is an effective way to engage shoppers. It works by bringing an outside experience into the store and allowing shoppers to feel part of the scene on show."

Just yesterday, Facebook announced that it will start rolling out video ads this week, with a "small number" of users expected to see the video units on the Web and on smartphones. The video ads will run automatically across users' News Feeds but will remain muted by default.

One of the more novel uses of video to emerge this year, though, involves customer contact centers. Richard Snow, an analyst at Ventana Research, estimates less than 10 percent of company contact centers have video in place. However, demand is expected to grow as video quality and best practices evolve. In effect, customer service has come full-circle: progressing from face to face to telephone to email and text chats -- only to return to face to face in a different form.

Last summer, NICE Systems, a telephony-centric contact-center vendor, got in on the trend with the launch of its Contact Center video recording solution. The new tool combines two of the company's existing solutions — real-time audio capture and video surveillance for security — to monitor and enhance the quality of the customer experience.

Yohai West, product marketing manager for NICE, told me contact center video recording lets organizations continuously monitor agent performance, provide additional coaching as needed, and maintain a single standard of performance across the operation. It works much like existing live online chats, with video rather than text messages. Organizations can use video to understand better not only what was said during a customer interaction, but also what was implied through the body language of the agent and the customer, he explained.

Looking Ahead 

There's no turning back. Customers are mobile, app-driven, impatient and eager for new experiences, online and off. They incessantly talk, tweet, email and video chat — in other words, share their experiences. So how can companies refine their customer experiences, differentiate themselves and take their CX to the next level? 

Technology is key, of course. Without it, Adobe's Stark said, "it's like showing up at a horse race riding a rat. It doesn't matter if you have a great jockey. He won't win because he's riding a rat." 

But don't get so caught up in the technology that it overshadows the connection you're trying to create with your customers. As we move into 2014 and beyond, the use of big data will grow exponentially. Through a combination of novel embedded systems and mobile technology, businesses have vast arrays of new sources of data about their customers. Add in text mining of comments made on everything from social media to contact center interactions, and you'll begin to understand the potential of this data-driven future. But slow down.

Listening to the data is important ... but so is experience and intuition. After all, what is intuition at its best but large amounts of data of all kinds filtered through a human brain rather than a math model?” explained Pulitzer Prize winning technology reporter Steve Lohr.

Trendwatching.com, a global trend research company, stressed that customers have limits to the amount of data they are willing to give up. "The challenge for businesses will be finding a balance between the very real benefits of data collection and utilization (recommendations, cross-selling, personalization, enhanced ad revenue and more), and earning the trust of increasingly hacked off consumers," the company noted.

In the end, CX is not about data or technology. It's about people ... demanding, opinionated, powerful people with the ability to make and break brands.

Colin Shaw, CEO of Beyond Philosophy, a customer experience consultancy, summed it up in a blog post on LinkedIn when he wrote, 

Every customer experience needs to have a focus not only on the rational side of the experience but also the emotional part of the experience … You need to understand the whole experience through the customer’s eyes both logically and emotionally and also use this information to design a customer experience for your organization that reflects the experience you want them to have."

Here's to 2014 — and a new year of delighting your customers in a myriad of ways.

Title image by wavebreakmedia (Shutterstock).