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PHOTO: Alexander Sinn

2020 marks a major anniversary: 10 years since the Great App Boom. You easily could have missed the milestone, since the start of app mania was defined by a series of events rather than a single, distinct one: surging smartphone sales despite the Great Recession, explosive popularity of app stores (Apple had launched its the previous summer), mainstream adoption of Facebook and Twitter, the emergence of Spotify.

A decade later, it often seems as if we live much of our lives on our devices. Even the simple routine of buying a cup of coffee has been transformed. When I visit Starbucks each morning, I’ve already placed my order and paid for it via an app and I’m usually on a call when I walk in to get it. The barista and I barely exchange word.

Has it all gone too far? I’ll leave it to psychologists, sociologists and others to ponder the societal questions. But I know this much: When it comes to how businesses approach their relationships with customers, Houston, we have a problem.

Where Are the Customers in These Experiences?

Companies have spent billions of dollars and countless hours in recent years to create digital initiatives to better serve the connected consumer. That’s certainly logical and necessary in our app-driven world. But as they’ve gone about it, too many businesses are forgetting a crucial element: the need to engage with customers on a human level.

To be sure, most businesses remain as committed as ever to customer experience as their true north — more so, actually, given that consumers hold unprecedented power in an age when they can learn everything about a company and its products online and switch brand allegiances with a click or a phone tap.

Think about the smooth experience of booking a vacation rental, communicating with the owner, and leaving a review on Expedia Group’s VRBO. Or how easy it is to buy a movie ticket and choose seats on Fandango. These companies get it because they’re able to put themselves in the customer’s shoes in all their interactions.

However, as customer interactions have moved out of the physical world and into the digital, some businesses have increasingly come to see their customers through the lens of data instead of as people to be known, understood and empathized with.

Related Article: Better Human Understanding, Not Big Data, Is the Future of Business

Are the Digital Experiences You're Creating Pushing People Away?

The big data fascination that has taken off concurrently with the app craze has led businesses to depend on data-driven insights — clicks, email response rates, behavioral actions, etc. — for clues into what customers like or dislike. While such analytics can be useful in helping companies discern trends in customer behavior, data is a poor proxy for real human experience.

Customer experience, after all, is made up of a variety of touchpoints and interactions that a consumer has with a brand — its products, services, employees, even its cultural values — across multiple channels over the course of the relationship. Almost all of it driven by emotion, how the customer feels about the experience.

In fact, in a recent Salesforce study, 84% of consumers surveyed said customer experience is now just as important as a company’s products or services. Tellingly, 75% reported that they expect companies to use new technologies to foster extraordinary experiences, yet 54% said it’s harder than ever for businesses to earn their trust.

My main takeaway from those findings is that the digital initiatives companies are relying on to bring themselves closer to customers are too often having the opposite effect and creating more distance between them.

Ironically, while consumers have never been more empowered, they also have never been more helpless, their voice more lost. Too many companies view them as digital exhaust, a trail of 1s and 0s from online interactions to be analyzed, with the information used in outreach that, all too often, doesn’t feel authentic or personal. The app economy giveth and taketh away.

Related Article: Customer Trust: Are We Experiencing an Existential Crisis?

There's No Substitute for Genuine Human Insight

The words of Sam Walton still ring true today. “Watching these companies spend millions of dollars, in marketing and advertisement, in order to make me come back to them,” the Walmart founder once said. “When actually I was there already, and all they had to do was a simple, cheap and easy thing: treat me with a little courtesy.”

Companies must realize there are things you simply can’t do with an app and with data analytics. There’s no substitute for genuine human insight to keep a business’s fingers on the pulse of customers’ ever-changing expectations, needs and desires.

That’s why companies need to make a priority of relying less on data and the generic marketing persona they yield and more on deep, empathetic understanding of what customers do, think and feel. To be clear, companies are trying to do the right thing when they focus on building good digital experiences. They just get it wrong when they fall in love with data and fail to proactively listen to customers as living, breathing human beings.

Want to win in the post-app boom world? Understand that digital innovation hasn’t changed the need for a business to relate to people as people.