Once upon a time, companies differentiated themselves almost entirely based on the things they made. Early in the 20th Century, the ability to produce items quickly and efficiently was a key differentiator for corporations that brought affordable products to the masses. Over time, production processes became so cost-effective that firms looked to streamlining distribution and opening new markets to gain an advantage. But there, too, they reached an efficiency plateau.
At the end of the 20th Century, the Internet opened up content distribution, but lately there has been a shift in focus. Companies still need to build innovative products and get them to market, but as the differences in many of those products become more subtle, companies need a new way to differentiate. In this new era, companies expect experience to be that new differentiator.
The Role of Connected Devices
Driving this shift is the proliferation of connected devices. These gadgets put serious computing power in the hands of consumers and enable them to have deeper, more enriching relationships with companies. Today’s mobile phones have nearly as much computing power as turn of the century desktops, while marrying the virtual and physical worlds. But it’s not just mobile phones that have had an impact. Touch-screen tablet computers fill a key void by enabling easier input and more multi-touch manipulation than mobile handsets, while providing more portability and a better tactile experience than notebook computers.
This suite of empowering devices has driven customer expectations to new heights, and has increased the frequency of interactions between customers and businesses. It also opens a world of opportunity for companies to enrich their relationships with their customers. The problem is that companies struggle with what experiences to provide on what devices — and which ones to build first. Because companies have typically been organized by channel, they tend to develop siloed strategies for each new touchpoint available to them. This approach to channel development can confuse customers with disjointed experiences. It also doesn’t provide an overarching framework for prioritizing which channels to invest in, leaving companies vulnerable to chasing shiny new objects.
Instead of focusing on channel-specific experiences, companies need to pay attention to the realities of today’s multi-channel customer who may use multiple touchpoints in pursuit of a single goal, and expects all touchpoints to be in sync in visual design, behavior and content. Firms need an overarching digital customer experience strategy.
Where to Begin
A digital customer experience strategy helps guide the activities and resource allocation needed to give customers a great experience across all points of digital interaction. It needs to address the identity and behaviors of target customers, where experiences will take place, and brand image across all touchpoints. How can companies get there?
Start with company and brand strategy. Firms need to ground their digital efforts firmly in the mission and value proposition of the brand. A digital customer experience strategy should translate top-level business objectives into an actionable plan for every digital channel.
Describe the intended digital experience. A strategy paints a vivid picture of how the company’s digital interaction points meet customers’ needs, make the company easy to work with, and provide an enjoyable experience. It should call out the aspects of customer experience that are most critical to a company’s aspirations for differentiating itself.
Direct activities and processes that support the defined experience. Companies set themselves apart by performing a different set of activities than their competitors or by performing the same activities differently. When customer experience professionals have a clear vision of what they need to do and how, they’re better equipped to make decisions about which projects to pursue.
Guide digital channel investments. Firms with a clear strategy prioritize investments in interactions that fulfill the brand promise and avoid wasting money on chasing new shiny digital capabilities if they don’t. With a clear strategy in place, firms can make informed decisions about the projects that have the most impact on their businesses instead of chasing features that might work for another company with a different strategy.
A few years ago, having a digital customer experience strategy meant having a website strategy. But in today’s reality, successfully delivering a cohesive experience that meets and exceeds expectations requires a more thoughtful approach that considers the entire customer journey. If you think customer experience is important, and digital channels are core to delivering those experiences, isn’t it time to make it a strategic priority?
Ron Rogowski is Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, serving Customer Experience professionals. His research on digital customer experience strategies will be presented at Forrester’s Customer Experience Forum, June 21 to 22 in New York.