Starbucks and your local coffee shop aren't just competing for the opportunity to offer you a good latte; they want to show you a good time, too.

According to PwC, the average customer is willing to pay a 16 percent premium on a cup of coffee if it comes with a great customer experience. That fact isn't lost on executives running major food service companies -- or their staff.

Customer experience isn't just a hot topic among baristas, though. A growing amount of data indicates that customer experience, or customer engagement, is critical to achieving differentiation and earning loyalty. In its "Customer Experience in 2020" report, Cisco found that 70 percent of purchasing decisions are made based on customer experience.

To be successful over the long term, your company must capture and hold consumer attention through great experiences -- as well as great products and services. The ability to do that doesn't require a huge investment in expensive technology or a new customer service team, but it may require a different perspective.

Put yourself in your customers' shoes, and think about what you could do to dazzle your audience just a bit more. This exercise should be an ongoing one, and implementing the insights you gain from it may take a while. In the meantime, here are three things you can focus on getting right immediately.

1. Share your company values

A strong brand promise communicates a company's reason for existing, its market value proposition and its differentiating qualities. This aligns a company's image with values, not just products or services. 

Brands that connect best, regardless of industry, don't just understand their brand but what their brand means to their customers. Sometimes that means adapting if the audience creates a new interpretation of your brand. Customer experience, over coffee, is what built Starbucks. And as it transitions more in to drive-thrus, it is self-aware that it will have to maintain its standing as the third place.

Build your brand like Lush has. In 2019 they continue to expand in malls while other contract because they aren't selling bath bombs, they are selling an experience across five senses that can't be duplicated. Create ways to connect rather than just sell. Create reasons for people to visit even when they don't need what you're selling. Create a place, not a storm 

2. Empathize with audience values.

It's impossible, in today's age, to create a truly great experience without some kind of personalization. Personalization requires data. This means doing research that goes beyond customer age, location and income that identifies your target audiences' motivations. Start by building data collection in to all of your consumer touchpoints or offer exclusive deals for better information. Just be careful with the survey approach because it can be not positively received if not executed properly. 

Christopher Rudy, co-founder and chief strategy officer at Cut, a media company centered on fueling fandom, says marketers and creators looking to drive engagement should commit to forming real relationships with their audiences. "People are interested and interesting," he says. "When we reduce them to artificial groups in an attempt to better relate to them, we actually do everything but."

Forming real relationships can be very simple. Don't think about how someone will buy your product. That's your first instinct. Instead, focus on how someone will be motivated enough to recommend your product. And then from there do what it will take to creat that kind of bond. 

And this is the common theme at every marketing conference I've attended for the past six months. As we dig further in to data to create better experiences we can't lose touch of what delights and motivates audiences. Data can inform how you create better experiences or it can make you lazy. Never stop listening to your audience and empathizing with their experiences. 

3. Activate the senses.

The growth of experiential marketing has occurred alongside the rise of customer engagement. Marketers tend to express frustration, though, when experiential campaigns don't yield the same hard data that traditional digital channels do. Yet modern marketers are beginning to discover ways to more accurately measure their so-called return on experience -- the immediate and long-term impact experiences have on consumer attention, including how that's manifested online and in real life.

The North Face actually maps it. The prototype store the brand recently opened in Brooklyn offers art, live music and foodie events, in addition to location-relevant merchandise. The company uses heat maps to identify which events and products get the most attention. Other brand activations, like Casper's Dreamery and the Starbucks Reserve Roastery, allow customers to gain a better understanding of the products they're buying, plus a deeper appreciation for the companies behind the products because the experience is immersive and active rather than just passively scrolling through a mobile experience. 

Yes, your goal is always to sell products/services. But as an entrepreneur you have the ability to use experience to strengthen the bond. No matter your resource level, create something in-store or online that does one of two things: turn your brand in to a story that elicits an emotional response, or be helpful and genuine in your experience that people never want to go somewhere else. 

Great customer experience is about more than a good cup of coffee - it's about continually drawing consumer attention away from your competitors. Staying true to your brand promise, identifying with customer motivations and providing engaging experiences will show customers that your brand is the one to watch.

Published on: Apr 4, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.