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When Harry Gordon Selfridge first established his famous department store on Oxford Street in 1909, he used ‘the customer is always right’ as a guiding principal. It’s an admirable notion, but easier to pull off in a one-on-one context. As technology has introduced more and more touchpoints for the customer to interact with brands on, it has complicated our ability to put the customer at the centre of the business’s world.

The importance of prioritising customer experience cannot be understated. Recent research from Walker Info claimed that by 2020 customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator, and as a result businesses of all types and sizes need to think about how they are going to adapt to a more customer-centric model. It’s now a crucial consideration for any business.

Brands now need to ensure that a customer’s journey includes a number of positive interactions over time, across multiple channels. As a result, the customer naturally develops a long-term relationship with the company, and the sense of attachment they feel is driven by the brand’s commitment to fully understanding the customer’s needs and desires.

However, customer experience can be a complex task to get right. Consumers’ expectations of the brands they interact with are higher than ever, and the number of marketing channels they can interact with the brand through are increasing all the time. Some businesses are feeling overwhelmed, as detailed in a 2016 Digital Trends Report, which revealed that 37 per cent of companies said the complexity or number of touchpoints is the greatest barrier to improving customer experience. Technology also plays a key role, and businesses that want to cultivate better customer experiences must ensure they get the right technology to both create and monitor these experiences effectively.

Once businesses have got the technology stack right, they can turn their minds to the equally important matter of getting the content right. They need to adopt a customer-centric “pull” approach, and align their communications to their customers’ experiences using personalised, valuable and relevant content. Doing this well requires businesses to use all their digital channels to listen for customers’ signals, and to create messaging that acknowledges, responds to and informs them as their brand relationship develops.

People now expect the brands they interact with to be available via live chat, on the end of a phone, checking Twitter and monitoring the main inbox. They want to be in control of exactly how and when they connect with a brand, and they want their experience to be consistent when they do. The more touchpoints companies are able to support, the bigger the positive impact on customer service and the greater the overall impact on customer experience.

However, how customers want to get in touch with businesses isn’t the only consideration when it comes to customer experience. There are also the times when brands want or need to reach out to their customers. This brand-initiated customer journey is an essential aspect of customer experience marketing, and businesses that understand their customers’ journey will enable them to structure messaging that aligns with their customers’ starts, stops and pauses. These signals can be read through data, as subtly as someone watching product videos on YouTube. Even “no signal” generates a data signal that businesses can use to learn about their customers, like when a subscriber doesn’t open an email.

Many of these communications will be automated, but because each communication is personalised, the customer is not likely to view it in that way. A good example is when a customer orders something online, receives an initial confirmation email followed by a text telling them the time it’ll be delivered. All automatic, all personally relevant and all hallmarks of a good customer experience.

Great customer experience is about putting in place a mechanism to automatically make the customer feel as though they are valued, whenever and however they come into contact with the brand. Data collection, automation and personalisation enable brands to create unique messages that reflect each customer’s interests and actions, and anticipate, react and seek to manage their actions. One of the ways that this can be achieved is by introducing an email marketing automation platform – that seamlessly connects with your ecommerce platform – combining the data to allow for personalisation in triggered campaigns, from welcome programs to abandoned cart and post-purchase.

Essentially, good service is good service no matter how it’s delivered. We remember it, and worst still we remember bad service. But it should appear naturally. Would I be spooked if I went to my local corner store and the shopkeeper like Arkwright from Open all Hours knew my name, what products I like and had previously purchased, when I was likely to need some more, or what similar customers to me liked? No – I would view this as good service and a great customer experience. Would I be offended if my local shop keeper didn’t remember my name or my birthday? I would most likely view this as poor service and a bad customer experience. We all have brands in our inbox where we share a similar experience – this hasn’t happened by mistake. These brands have used the data they have at hand and aligned this to the technologies at their disposal to ensure a great customer experience. I’m sure that, were he around today, Mr Selfridge would approve of the efforts brands go to provide their customers with the best service possible.

By Tink Taylor, founder and president of dotmailer