With the unparalleled success of companies such as Amazon getting constant media attention, it's easy to assume that customers only want products or services that come cheap and fast. Instead, quality and experience continue to be tremendous differentiators, and customers are willing to pay more for them.

Experience Is Everything

Without customers, your business would quickly fall apart. Because they're so intrinsic to your success, their experience needs to be a major focus in your organization. Technological advances, combined with innovations driven by companies such as Amazon and Netflix, are producing changes in customer expectations.

Research by Salesforce found that 50 percent of customers will choose a new brand to shop with if a business doesn't anticipate their needs, and as many as 70 percent of consumers report that technology is making it easier to shop elsewhere. Technology is driving another trend as well -- customers expect constant availability, with three-quarters of respondents indicating that having a salesperson available when they need one is either absolutely critical or very important.

Meanwhile, companies on the cusp of the digital transformation are enjoying myriad benefits, the biggest of which is a highly engaged customer base. Highly engaged customers are incredibly valuable, purchasing 90 percent more frequently than average customers and spending 60 percent more per purchase. These differences add up fast, and ultimately engaged customers deliver three times the annual value.

As customer experience moves into the forefront, delivering what customers really want is more important than ever. If your organization has limited resources, prioritize the following to get the most out of your customer experience dollars.

1. Focus on the shopping experience, not the buying experience.

There is a big difference between buying and shopping. Buying is the act of meeting a need -- when you run out of toothpaste, you just go and buy more. Shopping is about discovering a need that you weren't necessarily aware of but are interested in finding. That's why Amazon recognizes return customers and tailors its product recommendations accordingly -- it helps create a shopping experience online.

Andrew Blachman, COO of e-commerce platform Tophatter, says online retailers often focus on buying when they should be zeroed in on shopping: "Efficiency, not satisfaction, has become king. However, retailers can choose to address customer needs that don't fit neatly into a search bar. They can differentiate themselves as a shopping destination rather than engage in a war for the buying market."

E-commerce businesses are especially prone to focusing on convenience, but there are other ways to eliminate friction for your customers, such as improved user experience and customer service. In today's highly competitive retail environment, a shopping experience that entertains and delights customers will keep them coming back more than mere speed of delivery or selection.

2. Choose quality of service over speed.

Amazon has shown it's certainly possible to have quality service that's available quickly, but given the constraints that many startups face, one of these factors must be prioritized over the other. In such cases, quality is the most important because skimping on quality will ultimately make it harder to deliver down the road.

Focusing on delivering quality service to the customer can mean a wide variety of things depending on how your company operates. It could mean A/B testing certain features to discover which ones have the most positive response, or it could mean doubling down on clear communication to ensure you're always meeting customer expectations.

Whatever it means, choose quality over speed, and the latter will happen naturally. If quality is set aside for the sake of speed, both will inevitably go into a downward spiral.

3. Personalize customer experiences.

One of the reasons Netflix is so easy to use is that the service recommends shows and movies for customers to watch based on their viewing history. That personalized experience is exactly what customers crave and what they expect even more because of Netflix's success.

Lora Kellogg, president and CEO of franchise marketing agency Curious Janeacknowledges that "You might not be able to create a personalized experience for each of the more than one billion users online, but it's possible to customize parts of your site on the basis of information gleaned from customers' previous visits."

She emphasizes the importance of examining customer actions during the shopping experience. Customers aren't always going to tell you what issues they have, but seeing customers in action can help you discover parts of the overall experience that require some TLC.

4. Communicate constantly.

Netflix has prioritized customer service, not only with constant availability, but also by encouraging employees to crack jokes and speak in character to customers. While speaking in character may not work for every business, you should make yourself available on whatever channels your customers choose for communicating their needs. Your audience is constantly talking -- to get the most out of this radio chatter, you need to make sure you're listening.

According to Vala Afshar, author of "The Pursuit of Social Business Excellence," 80 percent of customers report that receiving an immediate response to a query affects their loyalty to a particular brand. While you can closely monitor communications, let the customers choose the particular channels.

A majority of customers -- 51 percent -- believe that a business should be available 24/7. For a small startup that can't possibly monitor phone lines and social media messaging every hour of every day, an automated chat function on your website can help answer the easier questions without the cost of keeping personnel on standby.

The business press might lead you to believe that the only way to succeed in the retail market is by becoming the next Amazon. In reality, Amazon is more than a couple steps ahead, and by trying to compete in that ring, you're setting yourself up for failure. Instead of competing on delivery speed and price, emphasize a quality customer experience. Delivering a great experience is powerful, and while it's not always easy to do, it will keep your audience coming back for more -- even when your competitors lower prices or provide free two-day shipping.

Published on: Apr 29, 2018