Customer relationships are complicated.  Gone are the days of our grandparents where brick and mortar was the ONLY game in town and you were expected to know every customer…“Hello Mrs. Peterson!  What can I do for you on this fine day?”  Successful businesses were built in and for a community to serve the needs of both neighbors and friends…it was a quaint time, where the world was smaller and life was simpler. 

Gone too are the days when having an online store was a novelty, or a differentiator.  To run with the pack, to compete, today’s aspiring businesses must learn to master the new, large and complicated omni-channel world.  From brick and mortar roots, we’ve expanded to phone centers, websites, mobile apps, iBeacons and geo-fences...  With seemingly no limits (other than awareness) on customer outreach, growth opportunities have expanded exponentially for the best and brightest, providing fertile ground for local leaders to build franchises and national chains (think Starbucks, Target, Walgreens, Wal-Mart) while online e-tailers have arisen offering both more options, and more competition (think Amazon, Overstock, Zappos. Ebay).

In that context, it’s understandable that for many the soul and center of every business—the customer—has been lost in the heady charge to grow, expand, dominate and win--while for others the simple fight to survive in the face of these new challenges consumes and distracts them from their core mission  It’s understandable that the personal experience enjoyed by our grandparents has been relegated to a whimsical novelty, no longer possible in today’s larger, fast paced and complex world…

Or, is it?

In a word, no.  While you may not be able to re-create your grandparents’ very personal experience of being recognized in the store, the same technology that has expanded your reach also gives you more tools, not fewer, to really know your customers.  Even if Mrs. Peterson rarely enters your store, when she joins your loyalty program, clicks on your url, visits your website, uses your mobile apps, talks to your contact center, completes a satisfaction survey, or even drives near your brick and mortar store…you should know her, and better than your grandparents could have imagined.  At the speed of light, our digital world means you have the ability to access a wealth of information about today’s Mrs. Peterson, including:

  • Who she is
  • Her segmentation profile and related shopping characteristics
  • What she should be buying
  • What she actually buys
  • What she spent on her last transaction, as well as last month/quarter/year
  • Where she is
  • What channels she’s shopped at/purchased from/prefers
  • What delights and upsets her
  • How she feels about your brand
  • Her satisfaction with her last shopping experience
  • And more…

No.  The biggest challenge to the personalized shopping experience today is twofold: data tsunamis and experiential deserts.  On the one hand, many find themselves overwhelmed by the immense wave of customer data out there, which absent proper controls quickly threatens to flood systems without delivering insights, knowledge or answers. As a result, many find themselves flooded with data, with individual customer insights washed away by a sea of customer segments and situations to be recognized and addressed accordingly.  This leads paradoxically to experiential deserts, where systems and processes eventually burn away concerns about individual experiences in favor of a higher imperative--controlling the customer experience.  In the midst of this experiential desert, customer interactions become more about talking AT customers, reciting scripts and role playing scenarios aimed at both following a well-defined, data driven process and controlling staff’s ability to mis-step, over-reach or otherwise expose the business to risk. 

When talking AT someone, customer interactions move away from the individual and towards the situational: the focus is on quickly categorizing the situation, identifying which bucket it belongs in and following the process tree along the branches assigned to it.  In this context, interactions move away from listening and hearing and instead towards reciting responses AT customers, checking off boxes along the way.  Rather than defining success as solving customer problems, when talking AT customers the goal becomes both simpler and less relevant to the customer: ensuring that the process and procedure has been followed (specifically, doing what’s defined as the ‘proper’ response).  In the extreme, staffs are so constrained as to become automatons, unable to neither think for themselves nor recognize simple solutions to customer needs.  Arguably, this is not exactly what Mrs. Peterson was hoping for. 

It’s time to come full circle, to escape the experiential desert and put the individual customer experience back on the pedestal where it rightfully belongs.  It’s time to start engaging WITH customers, as opposed to talking AT them.  In the context of today’s wealth of accessible customer data, there’s no reason every interaction can’t be truly personal, and personalized.  Processes are fine, to a point, but must be imbued with a degree and expectation of malleability: follow the process if appropriate, but only as long as it continues to make sense to the customer.  Fealty to the process should not be your measure of success—success is and always must be defined by how well, and quickly, you address or otherwise solve customers’ unique needs. 

How do you escape the experiential desert, then?  You do this by 1) hiring differently, and 2) training differently--raising expectations regarding the caliber of talent and quality of training required to get staff to where they recognize when to follow procedure, and when to stray from it.  You also do this by 3) empowering staff to bend the rules, stray off script and 4) incentivizing them to focus first and foremost on problem-solving: what is the customer need and how best to quickly meet it.  With access to a wealth of customer data, you can survive the data tsunami by intelligently pulling this data together and 5) democratizing access to holistic customer data via enterprise systems, offering access to both individual and aggregate customer insights that's accessible, understandable and relevant to front line staff.  

With a revitalized approach to hiring, training, incentives and data accessibility, that’s ultimately how we circle back to personalizing every customer interaction, regardless of the channel.  It's also how you can find your way 'back to the CX future', both knowing your customer and how best to address their needs.

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