Excellent customer experiences fuel growth, drive loyalty, are emotionally rewarding, and inspire people to become vocal champions of brands and the organizations behind them. In 2012, three out of every four organizations recognized this and told Forrester that their goal was to “differentiate on the basis of customer experience.” In real life, most brands scored in the “OK” or “very poor” categories, according to Forrester’s 2012 customer experience index. Only 3% were ranked as “excellent,” a sharp decline that started in 2007 and is now at an all-time low.
Going into 2013, we are finally at a place where despite nonstop and accelerating change, we have a better grasp of the ways in which people’s behaviors and attitudes continue to be reshaped by the digital age. We also have tangible proof that the market rewards brands and organizations that prioritize a clear focus on their customers. The brands we celebrate as an industry fall unequivocally in the superior customer experience category. These are the 1% (actually 3% to be precise) which are referenced in 90% of all industry books, articles, and blog posts.
Here’s a snapshot of what we know about the 3%: First and foremost, these organizations have a clear purpose that is visible and understood by all. They are able to seamlessly synchronize their products, services, and stories to consistently meet, exceed, and often anticipate customer goals throughout an end-to-end experience (from researching a brand to becoming a customer and beyond). They quantify and monitor the business impact of the different elements of the customer experience, and they compensate and train partners and employees around goals associated with a holistic blueprint.
We also know that getting started is often the key barrier. There is nothing like a complex effort that involves many stakeholders--with different agendas--to stifle progress. With that in mind, an alternative to the formal-change management approach is to start small and focus on a series of questions that can be addressed one by one. A new year provides a prime opportunity to take that first step, pick one or more questions from the list below in no particular order, bring the team together, find some caffeine, and get started now. There’s no excuse to wait--OK is just not OK anymore.
1. What is our customer experience, anyway?
If the answer to this question varies by functional area, then it might be a good idea to spend some time as a team mapping three essential components of the customer experience: communications, products, and services. These building blocks are typically conceived, managed, and optimized in isolation, resulting in two parallel universes where the organization’s understanding of what makes the customer experience has nothing to do with how customers actually experience the brand or organization.
Making connections among these areas and seeing them as inseparable not only results in an upgraded experience, but can be a powerful catalyst to innovation.
2. Are we building a bridge between our analytical tools and our intuition?
The fact that data should be at the center of what you do is so last year.
Organizations that can harness data to perfect the customer experience are winning and will continue to win. The task in 2013 is to build bridges between analytical resources and an organization’s intuition. Great customer experiences often exist in the space between knowing and anticipating needs. Data helps with both, but in very predictable ways (predictable is mostly good for the former, not the latter). Intuition, on the other hand, might as well be the most undervalued asset in business, and yet is what makes the difference between simply anticipating needs and redefining a category. Commit to make data and intuition work together and witness what happens.
3. What skills are we helping our customers master?
As marketers we have relied on game mechanics for many decades. Points and status programs have been and still are effective workhorses in many industries. In 2013, increased competition and choice will continue to put pressure on these practices, and smart organizations will continue to integrate them as an essential part of their offering, as opposed to side programs. The problem is that ubiquity will continue to drag down effectiveness as extrinsic rewards (e.g., points, status) grow old and drown these programs in a sea of sameness.
A better customer experience might result from doubling down on game design and moving away from pure extrinsic rewards. This creates a groundwork for people to master the skills that make them better at something that matters to them and your business. Skills-based marketing practices should aim to make your customer experience easier, more interesting and fun, while becoming a transformative force in the lives of your customers.
4. Are we contextually relevant?
We know that smartphone sales will dwarf PC sales in just a few years, and that tablets will soon follow. We also know that people do almost everything they typically do online on mobile devices, plus a whole set of new behaviors which not only grow in complexity and diversity, but are also often directly related to commerce. While advertising is not native to mobile and continues to struggle, service and commerce are, and continue to thrive.
It’s time to realign priorities across a customer experience that is now more than ever driven by context: Where you are matters as much as what you do. This demands a deeper understanding of people’s needs, alongside a re-education of how new and old channels work once they go mobile. Contextual relevance is quickly transitioning from a luxury mastered by businesses in intense, cutthroat environments to a requirement to simply stay competitive.
5. What building blocks are we offering to our best customers?
Building blocks can be content, tools, community participation, or an invitation to take a peek behind the scene--just a sampling of artifacts or techniques designed to invite customers to reimagine, co-create, personalize, and/or build on top of your product, services, and communication. Ask yourself a follow-up question: Are we thinking about our customers as merely consumers? Take a hard look at the last brief or presentation aiming to explain who your customers are. Then answer: Consumers or creators? Designing for the latter will lead to customer experiences that appeal to the complex beings that we are, resulting in richer and more satisfying experiences.
6. How are we making the invisible visible?
Customers send signals with almost every interaction between them and your brand. In an increasingly digitized landscape, these signals are zeros and ones, and with the proper logic, we can make them visible to deliver persuasive messages to other customers or the market in general. From individual behaviors to anonymized aggregated data, you can’t ignore the power of making key actions visible in ways that can influence others. In most cases, making the invisible visible also illuminates a better customer experience through exposing choices and behaviors that become relevant benchmarks for customers throughout their journey.
7. What proportion of our marketing budget is invested in being useful?
While there is no formula for assigning marketing dollars to tell our story versus bringing it to life in tangible, useful ways, there is plenty of evidence that those who focus on the latter continue to break out and enjoy better business, even in turbulent times. Being useful is not only part of the ethos of our no-nonsense digital age, but also a better way to build meaningful, long-term relationships with key customers. Useful leads to trust and trust is a powerful currency these days.
8. How are we enabling the minority of power users to add value to the majority?
Designing for power users, their needs, and behaviors, leads to mechanisms through which a small group of highly vested customers adds value to the majority of often passive customers. The legendary story of Facebook’s photo service, which only took off after it incorporated the capability for users to tag each other, offers a great lesson. Back then, the minority of power users started tagging the 80% who didn’t use the service, adding value to all and contributing to huge growth.
Approaching this design challenge with a service mentality allows brands to amplify product features that are not always obvious--until power users get involved. This also creates opportunities for brands to give their best customers the chance to co-create the experience with them, and in turn feel as though they have a real stake in the brand’s success.
9. Are we creating meaningful connections with like-minded brands and web services?
Smart brands know how to intuitively connect the dots between their products, services, and programs, as well as with other like-minded brands and web services that complement, enhance, and amplify their customer experience. Today, APIs allow brands to bypass complex partnerships and directly take advantage of data and processes that other brands and organizations make available. This provides a platform for brands to create collaboration opportunities that are mutually beneficial.
We are ready for a present where a meal plan turns into a shopping list that gets delivered to your door without more than three taps on your phone (see My Special K’s use of Tesco’s API in the U.K.). This provision dramatically improves the experience through opening apertures for complementary services at key steps of the customer journey. These API mashups are set to explode next year, as more and more businesses apply strategy and imagination to create services in partnership with other brands. And all of this can be accomplished without armies of lawyers and mountains of paperwork.
10. Do we know how our customer experience contributes to the bottom line?
The customer experience is the sum of all activities that a customer encounters in the process of researching, identifying, buying, sharing, and interacting with a brand, product, or service. These activities are typically the result of communication, products, and services working in harmony.
Considering the end-to-end experience as a source of competitive advantage is often taken for granted, as more and more organizations continue to discover the silos that result from (often much needed) specialization. Brands should start with examining existing maps and other communication tools to understand the end-to-end experience, identify if there is a customer experience lead in the organization, and quantify the cost of opportunity and overall business impact of what works and what doesn’t along the customer journey. Sounds basic, but in large and complex organizations sometimes all it takes is asking the right question.
Find more questions--and answers--in the Fast Company newsletter. 
RAPPʼs EVP of innovation & experience design, Camilo La Cruz, is an advocate of harnessing the power of technology and experience design on behalf of real people. His client experience includes global brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Nestlé, Novartis, Travel Channel, DIRECTV, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Humana, among others.
[Image: Flickr user Alan Strevens ]