Sales is inevitably a major business focus in many industries at the beginning of a new year. Yet while sales may be an important emphasis for any company, this extra attention can be counterproductive if it causes leadership to overlook the importance of customer retention.

Acquiring new customers can cost five times as much as keeping the ones you already have, yet 44 percent of companies spend more of their time and energy on acquisition compared to only 18 percent that take a retention-centered approach. Assuming you'd like to be among the wise 18 percent, one of the best ways you can retain existing customers is by delivering a top-notch customer experience.

Why Customer Experience Is Critical

These days, plenty of brands still try to compete in their industry based on the price of their offering, attempting to undercut competitors while still delivering a product or service that can be called satisfactory. Yet a Walker study suggests this strategy is becoming less and less effective, and that by 2020 price and product will fall behind customer experience as the biggest brand differentiators. Customer experience is critical because it has the power to increase not only retention, but sales and customer satisfaction as well.

Most companies invest as much as possible in their digital experiences, which is understandable considering 55 percent of consumers report that a single bad website visit can hurt their opinion of a brand. While digital interactions are key, they shouldn't come at the expense of the offline experience, which can be just as important and potentially even more impactful.

Joey Coleman, a leading customer experience expert and author of "Never Lose a Customer Again," explains why. "In a world where everyone seems to be rushing to develop online interactions, many organizations are forgetting the power of offline touchpoints," he says. "As focus has shifted to the digital, the ability to make an impact in the physical world is easier, less expensive, and more effective than ever before."

As brands enter 2018 with a renewed respect for customer experience, here are four ways to keep customers happy all year long:

1. Handwritten notes

Inboxes are overflowing, and while a thank-you email is a nice gesture, it's easily forgotten in the firehose of digital communications people receive on a daily basis. Coleman observes that one of the key elements of creating remarkable customer experiences is designing touchpoints that are unexpected yet produce positive emotional reactions. The warm feelings one gets when discovering a handwritten card in the mailbox are uniquely valuable and personalized.

For companies that want to be remembered positively by their customers (and who doesn't?), a handwritten note costs much less than the return it produces.

2. Clearing out frustrating service roadblocks

Customer service is already a big differentiator, and in 2018 it will be an even better way to distance your company from the competition. The typical customer service experience is plagued by ridiculous hold times, ineffective solutions, and unhelpful customer service agents. These issues are enough to drive away 89 percent of consumers who experience them, so upgrading customer service should be even higher on your customer experience priority list.

The best part about improving customer service is that it often involves giving customers the tools they need to help themselves. Self-service options can save companies anywhere from $1 million to $3 million per year while reducing the burden placed on call centers and improving the level of service they can deliver.

3. Advantageous personalization

The General Data Protection Regulation coming into effect in the European Union in May will empower European citizens to compel businesses to delete their personal information. While this trend hasn't yet reached the U.S., it's important for businesses across the globe to treat customer data responsibly. Companies leverage this information in all kinds of important ways, so in order to keep it, they'll need to provide a level of personalization that makes customers want the company to have it.

Whether it's a personalized product recommendation delivered to an inbox or a thoughtful birthday card delivered by mail, companies will need to go above and beyond to earn the right to keep customer information.

4. A top-down focus

Executives are fully aware that customer experience is important, but making it a high priority is another matter entirely. Executives are aiming to please a wide variety of stakeholders, and investments in customer experience don't necessarily yield immediate returns.

In companies with forward-thinking leadership, customer experience improvement initiatives will need to start at the C-level and spread throughout the rest of the company. If employees are merely sitting through presentations filled with customer experience buzzwords while management and leadership are looking in the opposite direction, the effort will never gain the momentum necessary to have a truly transformative impact

A great customer experience is no longer an extra feature that customers hope for when they choose to do business with certain brands. It's a requirement, and if companies can't supply it, consumers are more than happy to take their business elsewhere.

The good news is that companies that provide excellent customer experience will stand out in their industries, attracting new customers as well as retaining existing ones over the long run. Today, companies are no longer forced to participate in a price war with their competitors -- customers will happily pay more when they know a company values them.

Published on: Feb 9, 2018