When technology gave us the internet and e-commerce, it took something away in the bargain.

What did we lose in the move to e-commerce? 

People who sell things have known for more than a century that when they can, shoppers and customers choose and buy largely based on how they feel about their interactions with sellers — what we now call the "customer experience."

As commerce has become increasingly arm’s length, the commercial intimacy of yesteryear’s local or department store has largely vanished, but the role of customer experience hasn’t lessened in importance. It just got much more difficult to measure and manage.

Feelings Make E-Commerce Wheels Spin

Today’s e-commerce sellers find themselves courting and dealing with customers they will never see nor know much about. Adding to the challenges, the rise of social media amplified any negative comments customers made about their interactions with brands. 

Sellers in the new digital world face the need to get their customer interactions right lest they find themselves awash in negative comments from which their business may not recover. 

While this doesn’t sit well with a technology industry in thrall with logic and predictability, customers’ feelings, however capricious, are still the grease that makes the engine of commerce run. With the maturing of the e-commerce world came the rediscovery of how important those customer feelings are to success.

Managing Customer Interactions in an Arm’s Length World 

The e-commerce world first turned to the IT community for guidance on how to generate successful sales and resales … and got big data analytics for its trouble. 

While big data analytics provides value in a number of ways, it doesn’t do much to illuminate how customers feel about dealing with sellers and even less about what sellers should do up front to generate the positive interactions they hunger for. Sellers needed a way to measure and improve the customers’ e-commerce experience, and after-the-fact mass analytics wasn’t living up to its promise.

Don’t get me wrong: customer feelings aren’t the sole determiners of buying preferences. If your prices are significantly lower than anyone else, if, like Amazon, you combine convenience with reliability and speed, you’ll get business no matter how your customers feel.  

But in a world where everyone can hire the same CX consultants and field the same e-commerce software, and where no matter who you are, you are likely to face bigger and deeper-pocketed competitors, those advantages are only available to a select few sellers. The remainder must compete for business based on how customers feel about dealing with them.

Putting the Individual Back in Commerce

As retailers continue to struggle with delivering customer experiences that set their brands apart, simpler methods of measurement have appeared. 

Net Promoter Score (NPS) for example, uses a one-variable customer survey and simple calculation with much smaller data samples to rate customers’ likelihood of recommending a business and returning as a repeat customer. NPS adherents claim that a firm’s NPS score accurately predicts whether the business will grow or wither.  

Although some question the validity of the NPS model, its focus on individual customers provides a valuable signpost that the focus is turning from mass data analysis to more focused measurements. 

Sentiment Analysis also requires a lower volume of data, makes another modest turn toward measuring and understanding how customers feel. But with its concentration on natural language processing and computational linguistics, Sentiment Analysis tends to be complex and difficult to manage outside controlled settings.

Taking the renewed focus on the individual still further is the use of MRI technology (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging or FMRI) to measure individual subjects’ response to branding and other marketing stimuli. Although controversial, FMRI points further to the realization that customers’ responses to commerce interactions, even below the level of consciousness, are critical elements of business strategy.

Recapturing the Corner Shop Online

But even as new and more sophisticated analyses appear, the e-commerce world still has lessons to learn from the “old days.” One of them is the enduring value of the personal interaction embodied in the retail store of old: clerk, floorwalker and staffed complaint department. 

Lose contact with the customer and you may lose the business, without ever knowing why. Customer surveys, while valuable in helping sellers to learn about their customers’ likes and dislikes, don’t do much for their feeling of connection.

One way firms are responding is with “live chat” functions, allowing customers and shoppers to interact with a real live representative albeit via text messages. Being able to ask questions and air problems can go a long way toward engendering the positive feelings that bring customers back and dissipating the negative ones that can drive them away.  

Even the presence of chat functions, just by their willingness to engage, have proven to have some value even for customers who don’t use them.  

And of course there is the customer service phone number with a live voice on the other end, but with growing expense forcing many call centers offshore where they are managed by part time contractors removed from the company, they present a number of problems.

Aligning Tech to the Human Needs

Theorists have also trotted out Maslow's hierarchy of needs in an attempt to determine whether a customer experience will be positive or negative. That these needs are partly subjective — “It’s not whether or how well your transactions work, it’s whether the customer feels good about them” — can drive technologists batty, but success will go to those who can embrace and deal with the humanity of their clients.  

Even Amazon, despite its preeminent position in e-Commerce, actively surveys individual customers about how they feel.

While much of the past 50 years has seen a move to shape humans to the needs of technology, we are now finally moving to make technology better align with the needs of its human users.

The retail industry is moving, albeit slowly, toward a more personal and connected relationship with its customers. However this works out in detail, it can only be good for both seller and customer.  As the needs and feelings that drive customers are better understood, the industry can measure success sooner and more accurately, identify and deal with problems earlier and stay ahead of the game in its planning and preparation.

We aren’t likely to achieve the kind of intimate seller-customer connection characteristic of 19th and early 20th century commerce, but we can get close enough to make both selling and buying a more positive and predictable experience. 

Title image by Aaron Alvarado