rows of rubber ducks
PHOTO: JOSHUA COLEMAN

The last time I flew in an airplane was on Feb. 26, 2020. The last big event was a Spring Training game on March 8. Over the ensuing 12 months I ordered takeout to boost the survival of our local restaurants; spent far too much time at home; increased my online shopping (who didn’t?) and found new brands to connect with.

These new brands expressed empathy. They kept things simple, sent informative emails and nurtured a community via social media. Members collaborated, asked questions, provided advice, discussed their experiences, shared photos and celebrated success. The brands asked for guidance, created contests, offered giveaways, posted job openings — and grew customer loyalty. In a world where everything was distant and virtual, the personal nature and closeness of these online groups was a welcome change.

The Pace of Change

In the year since the pandemic started, we’ve lived through a lot of change. Much of that change is here to stay. Digital transformation has accelerated, and along with it, an already existing phenomena, where customers formed their expectations of digital experiences based on online interactions with any business, was firmly cemented.

In the recent “State of the Connected Consumer” survey, Salesforce revealed 62% of customers say experiences with one industry influence their expectations of others, and 88% expect companies to accelerate digital initiatives due to the pandemic.

Customer experience has long been the objective of digital transformation — whether that’s back-office modernization, a move to the cloud or improvements to digital commerce. Brands realized that in order to accomplish their CX goals, they needed to harness the power of their digital world, disrupt the status quo and unleash the power of their data.

Related Article: Converge Customer Experience With Digital to Thrive in 2021

Personalization Gone Awry

However, there are struggles with understanding data and how to use it. Too often, many of us have experienced how personalization can go awry. This is either because the data is outright wrong, or it’s incomplete, or it’s fragmented and cannot provide sufficient context.

My 83-year-old mother has needed help this year with her technology, including emails. The emails she receives have provided invaluable insight into how little the companies she's done business with for decades know her. Here are three examples:

  • A financial institution made an offer of financing for a new home (“Access our homebuyer readiness tool”), a new car (“Get a rate discount on your auto loan”) and retirement investing (“Turn your goals into action with a Life Plan”).Her local branch knows her. Her deposits from her retirement accounts began eons ago. Yet, based on these irrelevant offers, this information isn’t used.
  • A streaming music company promotes the same music to both my 83-year-old mom and me. Through the device to support this streaming service, mom listens to Dinah Shore, Andrea Bocelli, Burt Bacharach. This music revives memories for her. Buried at the bottom of the email are four recommended playlists which align to her tastes, but those are never seen because the first two-thirds of the email is filled with music recommendations that have nothing to do with her tastes (eg rap, hip-hop, or modern country).
  • A retailer sends a series of monthly emails with the subject: "These totally remind us of you" with the pre-header text “Meet your new go-tos.” and a message “We can’t imagine your closet without them.” The problem? The email is populated with nine pairs of shoes for toddlers, young girls and young boys. My favorite was a pair of unicorn sneakers. These emails lack personalization and context, continuing now for six months, with the latest email featuring all men’s shoes. Even looking across these emails, there’s not a common thread connected by data.

These companies have millions of customers — and the ability to gain context and to personalize communications that get noticed and acted upon. Inaccurately personalized communications are worse than impersonal yet relevant messages. Lacking relevance in a message, offer, or other interaction is what keeps CTRs at 2% and erodes loyalty.

Customer loyalty is not what is used to be. According to PWC, one in three customers will leave a brand they LOVE, after one bad experience. What customers consider to be a bad experience may be completely subjective and vary by customer, but the possibilities to create relevance lies in your data. This data then informs your martech stack, your analytics and your employees to guide the next best action.

Related Article: Customer Loyalty: Understated and Overestimated

Start With a Sponsor, a Plan and the Right Tools

After executive sponsorship and clearly stated achievable business outcomes, you’ll need to pay close attention to the quality of your data. Investing in the tools to manage your data is just as important as investing in the tools to connect with your customers or to manage your other company assets.

Executive sponsorship, business outcomes and your data will be unique to your company. But standard tools exist to manage and get the most out of your data so it becomes more trustworthy and actionable. With recent advancements in artificial intelligence, many of these tools are easier to use, easier to implement, and easier to adapt.

Here is a list of the tools you’ll need to be successful: 

  1. Data discovery and cataloging — These tools help you know what data you have, its properties, who uses it and where it is.
  2. Data quality — These tools help you know how complete your data is, how accurate it is, how often it changes, and works to standardize it across your systems (think US dates vs European dates).
  3. Data governance — These tools provide alignment across your company on standard definitions and policies for managing and maintaining your data (think about how you define a customer, customer value and more. It’s often trickier than you think).
  4. Data mastering — These tools help you create a trusted profile of customers from the many different systems that contain customer data. It’s the closest you’ll get for maintaining a single version of the truth across your applications.
  5. Customer data platform — From a data perspective, these tools help you to infer insights and add context about customers by connecting and linking additional data to your master customer record to make it actionable.
  6. Data security — These tools help you keep your data safe and by detecting and monitoring sensitive data and can encrypt, mask or otherwise protect data at rest and data in motion.

Related Article: Customer Journey Moments That Matter: 3 Key Investment Areas

'People Will Never Forget How You Made Them Feel'

By investing in your data and partnering with your IT team, you start to gain the context needed to make your customers’ lives easier and better. You’ll be able to deliver more relevant offers, truly personalized communications, and remove friction from transactions and interactions.

At some point over the past year, I realized a lot of the brands I mentioned at the start of the piece have embraced a simple concept that should be at the core of every customer-centricity program. This concept is best expressed by Maya Angelou’s eponymous quote, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Many organizations are changing how they engage with customers. Empathy is entering the business lexicon alongside service leadership. Much like accepting credit cards for payment, self-service gas stations, and electronic airline tickets, the disruptive nature of customer experience programs can be a good thing if done right.