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Walk a mile in your customer's digital shoes PHOTO: Harsha K R

Businesses often talk about the importance of understanding their customers in context to provide them with better brand experiences. 

Indeed, this has become the holy grail of objectives among marketers and customers alike. 

But what’s holding many businesses back from delivering those experiences is a shared understanding of exactly what context is, and how best to harness an understanding of real-time context to change and improve customer engagement outcomes.  

Empathy Is Everything

Of course, if you ask customers whether context is important to them when they engage with a brand, you’ll very likely get a blank stare. But what customers do care about is whether the companies they’re dealing with demonstrate that they really understand them as individuals. 

When customers use mobile apps, engage with frontline sellers, or tweet, email or call a contact center, they want a brand to respond as if they personally know them and get to the crux of the matter quickly. 

That’s what empathy is all about.

5 Keys to Contextual Understanding

So how can businesses go about achieving the kind of real-time contextual understanding that will let them deliver better and more relevant customer experiences? 

The approach starts by taking an empathetic perspective on the customer’s point of view, stressing these five key facets of real-time context:

1. Motivation

What are your customers trying to achieve? What is their intent? Customer intent is something brands are constantly trying to figure out in order to present the best offer, but it can be incredibly challenging to interpret, much less do so in real time.  

Technologies such as predictive analytics and AI-based machine learning are now making it easier for businesses to understand customers’ motivations and calculate the quickest, most effective way to identify their needs. Armed with that knowledge, businesses can then address those critical moments of need and deliver the most relevant and timely service, experience or offer, as quickly as possible. 

2. Emotion

How do your customers feel in the moment? What are their current attitudes toward your brand? Organizations can look to techniques such as sentiment analysis to infer what a customer’s attitude might be. But emotion can change rapidly, making it important to have this information in real time to understand a customer’s immediate needs. Ignoring the emotional factor will invariably result in stale offers that don’t properly capitalize on the sentiment of the moment. 

For example, if a customer has just escalated a service issue, it’s probably not the best time to try to upsell a new offer or service. Even if that customer’s past behavior suggests a predisposition toward buying more products, the current emotional context says otherwise. When brands ignore these sorts of emotional contexts, they can actually end up creating negative experiences that strain customer relationships.   

3. Behavior

What are your customers doing and what have they done in the past leading up to this point? Unfortunately, your brand can’t always know the answers to these questions. There can be frequent blind spots along the customer journey so often the best that businesses can do is to make the most of the behavioral data they have access to at a given moment. 

The challenge in doing this is that for most brands, customer data doesn’t reside in one place, making it hard to access. One way to overcome this obstacle is to stop looking at individual channels in isolation and start creating seamless ways to engage across them all. 

By creating channel-free experiences, businesses can use live data and context to connect the dots and narrow behavioral blind spots on the customer journey. New strategies such as the modern AI-based customer decision hub approach are finally allowing brands to do this. 

4. Environment

What factors in your customers’ physical and digital environments are fast-moving and constantly changing? Even external elements like the weather can impact a customer’s needs at a given moment. 

Interestingly, environmental context is emerging as one of the most promising opportunities for brands, in particular because of technology advances in IoT. Think of Apple’s iBeacon and other geo-targeting technology that enables brands to capitalize on context by sending customers tailored personalized messages and offers based on their locations. 

What’s more, knowing if your customers are at or near a competitor’s store can be powerful information to be aware of as well, since that knowledge increases your brand’s ability to entice customers with more appealing offers.

Remember though, that location or proximity alone do not always equal relevance. Think of the many GPS apps that push out offers to customers based solely on their driving location, without an ounce of context as to where they are headed and why. 

For example, chances are that a customer racing to an appointment doesn’t really want to drive 15 minutes out of the way to open a new checking account. You can bet that offers like that will fall flat almost every time.

5. Situation

Where in the customer journey are your customers with regard to your brand? This question takes a longitudinal view, in which it’s not just one moment that counts but rather your customers’ overall decision and purchase journeys. 

For instance, is a given customer at the awareness or consideration stage and just gathering information? Or is one of your current customers on the phone with a service rep trying to resolve an issue that could make or break their ongoing relationship with your brand? 

Situational context ties closely back to the concept of intent. Knowing what your customers are trying to achieve moment by moment can — and should — inform your brand’s ability to guide them toward realizing their goals. 

When Customer Experiences Fall Short 

Where the customer experience falls short, is when brands don’t account for each of these five facets in totality. All too often brands tend to focus on just one element but don’t consider the full context of the situation. 

It is also key to remember that even the most insightful mastery of real-time context won’t necessarily lead to a purchase every time. In many circumstances, the next-best action for a valued customer may simply be a sincere thank you. 

Be Meaningful and Relevant

Advanced analytical approaches such as artificial intelligence are allowing organizations to get better at integrating all facets of real-time context to effectively engage with their customers. AI enables brands to connect with fast-moving customer data as it’s being generated and put that information to work in real time. 

By putting systems and processes in place that consider all five facets of the customer experience during the moment of interaction, brands have a greater opportunity to be meaningful and relevant precisely when it matters most.