Customers may not always know what they want – but they want it!

By Prof. Adré Schreuder, CVO of Consulta

Customer experience is not a new concept, but an ever-advancing cycle. Although we now have new digital tools at our disposal, the tactics used by brands in marketing strategies over the last few years are the product of decades of customer research.

Even the terms used to describe the concept have changed with the times, from customer service to satisfaction to experience and even some calling it customer engagement. Changes aside, the core premise behind the concept remains the same – to the point where customer experience has become a repetitive and predictable cycle. Brands that have experienced success and prolonged customer loyalty are those that managed to better understand what customers really want – something they themselves struggle with.

For instance, people can now scan and renew car licence discs using a mobile banking app, get product or service support from AI-powered chatbots, and pay for pretty much anything by simply scanning a QR code with their smart phone.

The premise is simple: brands that keep customers happy will succeed. It’s the strategies they implement and the actions they take to keep customers happy that are in constant flux in the relationship between brand and customer.

Getting the basics right
Getting the basics right is vital before implementing the ‘clever’ tactics and this has always been and continues to be the case. Brands that have managed to stand the test time are those that understood this from the start, constantly realigning their strategies to ensure they’re getting the basics right.

For example, a visit to any McDonalds restaurant anywhere in the world could be classified as a predictable experience. The cashier greets you, takes your order, asks if you’d like to upsize your meal, takes your money and thanks you for your business. This has been the case since Ray Kroc opened the first McDonalds franchise store in 1955, setting a benchmark as one of the earliest examples of great customer experience – and it’s the still the case today. This simple formula has been expanded in the last 20 years, with brands realising the need to delve deeper into the minds and hearts of customers to better understand their needs, wants and desires.

The science of human nature
Once the basics are mastered, brands can better focus their attention on putting themselves in the customer’s shoes – better understanding the minds of customers and the complexity of decision-making.

This is how neuroscience entered the fray – a scientific field of study dealing with the structure and function of the human brain, and how these factors influence a person’s decision-making process. Marketers realised the value in using neuroscientific principles to gather more meaningful data about customers to deliver products and services in more direct, relatable and context-mindful ways. This has allowed those brands who better understand the neuroscience of customer perception and behaviour to design carefully planned customer experience journeys that are much more considerate to real human emotion and connection than ever before.

Coca-Cola is a great example of this, with taglines like ‘Open Happiness’ and ‘Taste the Feeling’, and activations like the Happiness Machine that dispensed free beverages when people gave each other hugs in real life. The birth of neuromarketing was an important development in the evolution of customer experience because it made way for a new era of marketing, giving brands the ability to engage with their customers on a more human level.

From collaboration to co-creation
Similarly, thanks to neuroscience, brands developed a better understanding of the customer’s position and perspective. Acknowledging that customers were increasingly and constantly bombarded with new information and offerings, we reached a point where they needed to be guided in the direction of what they wanted from a product or service. This important realisation gave rise to the concept of co-creation, where brands would essentially request the customer to help create and customise products according to their unique individual preferences. This would be the start of the era of ‘mass personalisation’ – a pivotal part of every brand’s marketing strategy today. Journey designers of intangible service offerings can become much more effective by understanding that a service is essentially ‘manufactured’ and consumed by the customer at the same time – this is truly co-creation.

One of the best examples of this is the Build-a-Bear franchise – instead of mass-producing the same stuffed toys, this brand gave customers the ability to customise one in any way they fancied, from choosing the colour and size of the bear to picking out a special outfit of their choosing. This is when brands really started to hone in on customer experience, providing end users with a say in how their products look and feel, and adding value and meaning to the brand-customer interaction.

The rise of digital
As social media channels like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat gained popularity, many brands did the logical thing by hopping on board the social train. Joining this new digital wave allowed them to harness the power of social media to reach, interact and engage with their target markets in a more ‘human’ way. Advances in digital technology have allowed marketers to strengthen their arsenal, not only driving the neuromarketing campaigns previously touched on, and developing a real repertoire with audiences, but to more importantly offering customers the convenience and efficiency they now demand.

As we know today, even the best social media tactics and campaigns are meaningless without the ability to measure the return on investment. Brands needed to know if their digital efforts aligned to business objectives – whether ‘likes’ equate to a favourable effect on the business’s bottom line. The solution could be found in Big Data, allowing brands to gather, analyse and learn from various points in the customer journey. This includes everything from internet browsing habits and online behaviour to deep and meaningful aspects of a person’s life, all gleaned from a series of AI-powered algorithms.

Brands that failed to keep up were promptly shown the virtual door – remember that smart phone brand that just wouldn’t let go of its frustratingly tiny qwerty keyboard interface? Or the toy company we all know and love, now shutting its doors in America as a result of failing to innovate.

Customer experience has come a long way in what seems like a relatively short space of time. We’ve seen brands grow tremendously through their quest to meet the basic expectations of the consumer, surprise them with a few clever and memorable marketing tactics here and there, and discover everything there is to know about them too. The real question now is, where do we go from here? If we’ve learned anything from the last 20 years or so, it’s that the customer is the one who determines the way forwards for brands – and brands better start listening.