This past year, Gartner deemed customer experience the new battlefield for marketers. The analyst firm has predicted that by 2017, 50% of consumer product investments will be redirected to customer experience innovations. In fact, Mercedes Benz USA President & CEO, Steve Cannon says, "Customer experience is the new marketing."

My experiences shopping online and managing telecommunications providers over the holiday season were a stark reminder that companies are still failing to get customer experience right. Why does it take seven interactions with Verizon to manage a simple account change? Why does a Comcast call center employee pass me off to another department that's closed for the holiday? Customer experience isn't just about one call center interaction or one beautifully designed email. It's about how all of a customer's touchpoints with your company come together in an entire experience.

If you want to win the customer experience battlefield in 2016, you have to think holistically. Start by following these three rules:

Overcome your departmental silos:

Someone must be responsible for how all your customer touchpoints fit together.Two months ago, I decided to cancel my mobile broadband with Verizon. Upon logging into the website, I was blown away by the improvements that had been made to the account management pages. Each line on my account was cleanly displayed; I could immediately understand my charges and services. As my typical over-excited self, I began to Tweet something positive about Verizon . . . but then I thought, "Wait a minute, let's finish the task at hand, and see how this turns out first." What followed was a one month series of Verizon interactions from website, to chat function, to call center, to email confirmations, to website, to call center, to email confirmations, to call center again. Each individual interaction was above average but as a whole, completely broken. From a customer perspective, it was as if no one in the organization was responsible for my entire customer journey. And that's true for many Fortune 500 clients. While a Chief Experience Officer (CXO) may exist, and they're still a rare breed even among top brands, that individual rarely has the authority or budget to influence the customer's experience broadly. If you want to win the customer experience wars, you have to knock down departmental barriers to change--either through cross-functional teams or by truly empowering the CXO or CMO with all aspects of customer experience.

Identify your gaps and opportunities:

Do you regularly spend time watching customers and how they interact with your company? If you answered, "yes, we watch customers in the lab all the time," then you're still not getting a complete picture. Labs are great for taking a narrow, deep dive assessment of a particular aspect of your digital experience. However, they don't give you a sense for the vast array of ways customers are trying to interact with your company, their context, and where you're failing them today. By watching customers "in the wild" or their natural environments through ethnographic study, you can identify gaps between what customers want to do and how you currently support them. And, in that gap, you can find gold to drive your next customer experience innovation. Wells Fargo invests significantly in exploratory research to understand how the firm can elevate the entire service design process. In fact, insights from their ethnographic studies drove innovations that resulted in the bank's mobile experience ranking #1 in the country.

Develop and optimize for customer journeys:

Capturing and visualizing your customers' experience in a journey map enables you to understand the variety of touchpoints customers have with your company when attempting to complete important tasks like opening a new account, returning an item, changing services, or getting help. By asking customer experience researchers to conduct exploratory or diary studies, you can get a detailed understanding of what your customers' journeys are, where they're broken, and where you can most influence loyalty and brand perception. You can also prioritize where to fix issues in the organization and begin designing experiences that are based on a holistic view of customer touchpoints vs. based on a single touchpoint (e.g., just the website). Journey maps can also be used to optimize for your internal constituents' experiences, like sales reps, advisors, or agents. Intuit uses "Journey Lines" and identifies customer emotions at each step to help team members develop empathy when designing for customers. Genentech develops journey maps of patients' health care journeys from initial symptoms and diagnosis all the way through ongoing treatment. Documentation of this journey not only identifies content and feature needs at each stage, but also deepens empathy for patients within the Genentech community.

This year, take your customer experience to the next level by vowing to drive the disciplines necessary to gain a holistic view of your customers' touch points. Don't let departmental hierarchies and structures distract from delivering seamless customer interactions. Spend more time with your customers "in the wild" and use journey maps as your guide.

[1] Gartner, "Gartner Surveys Confirm Customer Experience Is the New Battlefield," By Jake Sorofman | October 23, 2014: http://blogs.gartner.com/jake-sorofman/gartner-surveys-confirm-customer-experience-new-battlefield/

Published on: Feb 2, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.