A business without customers is like a boat on dry land. It doesn't matter how nice the boat is or how much experience the crew has -- without water, the boat serves no purpose.

Customers are essential to every company's success. Despite this, some organizations that claim to be customer-centric take their customers for granted. They see people more like revenue streams than human beings. Eventually, that attitude seeps into management decisions and customer service interactions, driving away the customers that once kept the business afloat.

The longer brands wait, the more dangerous this mindset becomes. Within two years, customer experience will overtake both price and product quality as the primary differentiator between competitors. People don't want to deal with rude agents or disingenuous salespeople. They crave authentic connections and personalized content, and the brands that deliver on those expectations will win their business.

Not every brand can win every customer, though, so companies must learn how to please their target markets. By following three essential strategies, brands can stay focused on their customers and provide an experience that keeps people coming back.

1. Wring every insight out of your customer data.

Just as not all businesses offer the same experience, not all customers desire the same thing. Identify your target audience, then study its members to understand what they want and how to give it to them.

Start that study by collecting relevant data in uncommon ways. All companies want to understand their customers, and most send email surveys. Stand out by doing things differently, and reach out to those customers who are likely to give you the most valuable insights.

Contact customers who leave negative reviews to find out why their experience didn't live up to expectations. Meet in person with important clients to discuss ongoing projects. Use feedback software to streamline communications with consumers after they interact with the brand. The more ways you collect and integrate customer data, the better equipped you become to deliver the right experience.

"Data integration gives you the ability to learn more about the customer journey and acquire more customer-driven insights," says Jeffrey Pruitt, chairman and CEO of Tallwave. "This can be leveraged for client acquisition, growth through upsells and cross-sells, and retention strategies."

2. Take a controversial stance.

"We live in the era of the conscious consumer," says Marco Scognamiglio, global CEO of the marketing giant RAPP. "No longer content to separate their politics from their wallets, buyers want to know that the brands they're supporting also stand for something."

Consumers want companies to connect with them beyond one-time transactions. Take a stance on important social issues that align with your company's mission. Some customers will take offense -- and that's fine. The goal isn't to please everyone, but to inspire deeper loyalty in a passionate group that will make more purchases in the long run.

"As the leader of a global company, I know that standing up for a controversial issue, especially in the corporate world, isn't easy," Scognamiglio admits. "It may even seem counterintuitive in its inherent polarization. From a branding perspective, though, it's one of the most lucrative steps a company can take."

3. Wield your differentiator and make them remember it.

Some brands are so afraid to make mistakes that they lose all their differentiating factors to blend in with the crowd. Don't be like those companies; do something weird to embed your brand in the minds of prospective buyers.

Tide did a great job of this during the most recent Super Bowl. Several commercials felt like they were advertising cars or food, but no -- the Tide spokesperson pointed out the super-clean clothing of his costars and confirmed he was in a Tide commercial. Throughout the game, viewers watched the commercials of other brands and tried to guess whether they were watching a Tide commercial instead. Tide didn't just buy a few expensive commercials: It bought the whole show.

Brands don't need to drop millions on a Super Bowl commercial to be remembered, though. Whether it's an unexpected level of customer service, a fun bonus, or a bold political statement, a single quirk can make the difference between a forgettable transaction and a memorable experience

"Truly great salespeople know the end goal for a sales job is not closing deals," says Heather R. Morgan, economist and founder of Salesfolk. "Rather, these people understand their real mission is to help other human beings solve problems and pain points."

It might sound counterintuitive, but to sell more, stop focusing on the sale and start focusing on the experience. Learn what customers want, then show them why your brand is different from all the rest. Remember how customer experience is soon going to eclipse both price and product? Brands that focus on improving that experience now will have a head start on those playing catch-up in 2020.

Published on: Apr 6, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.