"Customer experience" in e-commerce is on the verge of becoming meaningless. Here's a way to think about the overused term and maybe save it as a phrase.
We stand at a pivotal moment in history. Starting now, we have the opportunity to shape a vision for generations. The moment is fleeting. Soon, the phrase “customer experience” will tumble into the smothering morass that has consumed “customer journey,” “omnichannel retail” and “mobile first” and turned the words into quivering masses of meaninglessness. OK, so maybe we’re not exactly facing armageddon. I mean, this is shopping we’re talking about. But a lot of people have a lot riding on getting shopping right — not the least of whom are consumers. If you’re in retail or follow the industry, “customer experience” is everywhere. My in-box — and I bet yours — has been bombarded with reports, studies and news stories about the embrace of achieving the ultimate customer experience. eMarketer recently released research that found that nearly 90 percent of e-commerce executives believe that improving customer experience is fundamental to the future success of their businesses. The survey, conducted by consultants The Storytellers, also found that 82 percent of the executives said a better experience would increase returns on investment, while two-thirds said improving the customer experience would lead to “greatly increased profits.” The barrage has all the earmarks of the buzzword syndrome. Well-meaning marketers come up with phrases that sound good and are vaguely descriptive. But soon, like barnacles, the phrases become attached to anything that moves. The words pretty quickly lose any specific meaning and become a sort of “the dog ate my homework” response to retail’s challenges. Foot traffic down? Not to worry. We’re working on an omnichannel strategy. Desktop traffic skidding? We’re on it. It’s all part of the changing customer journey. Smartphone traffic is spiking wildly, but sales on mobile phones are lagging? Chill. It’s step one of our mobile-first strategy. Customer experience is often pureed in the Vague-O-Matic Let’s not throw “customer experience” into that same Vague-O-Matic. The way to save customer experience as a concept is by defining it. Or more accurately, by understanding that customer experience is a lot of different things and when we talk about it, we should be clear about which parts we’re talking about. The way I see it, customer experience is about data, emotion, economics, visual cues, nostalgia, supply, demand, fashion, pop culture, aspiration, personal finance, self-image, desire and restraint. It’s a classic mix of art and science. But underneath all that, customer experience comes down to three broad categories. (I admit that I fought the urge to write, “customer experience falls into three buckets.” This buzz word syndrome is powerful, my friends.) Here's a framework for thinking about customer experience And yes, the boundaries among the three categories blur in places. They sometimes work in tandem and sometimes sequentially to form a marketing funnel. That said, I’m going with: The aesthetic customer experience: This is the art, and very much the world of merchandisers, though everyone needs to play a part. This is right-brain stuff, the poetry the soul of retailing. The aesthetic customer experience is all about understanding your customers and showing them you know them through the story your brand tells. It’s about relating to those who visit your sites through text and video and photographs — and by grouping and arranging products in an eye-catching and mind-pleasing way. It’s about building online pages that help consumers understand what they’re getting and how it will affect their lives. It’s about building a site that is pretty, with well-crafted writing and gorgeous photographs. The aesthetic experience is understanding what your customers mean to you and what you mean to your customers. It’s anticipating what the cool kids will be wearing or using and how products intersect with pop culture, social sets and world events. It’s about inspiration and communication. It’s about being authentic. The logistic customer experience: This is the science. This is where data and technology come in most prominently. Combining data and technology allows retailers to achieve another buzz phrase: “getting the right product in front of the right customer at the right time.” In short, it’s about relevance and personalization. It’s about presenting each individual shopper with a visual array of products, sorted in a way that shows the site understands that particular customer’s style, tastes and preferences. The logistic customer experience makes a customer’s visit worthwhile and not a waste of time. It’s about getting digital checkout right and making sure pages featuring your products and non-product content load quickly. It’s about relying on systems that constantly learn and take the manual work out of presenting your best store to each individual online visitor. It’s about using technology that helps you spot places where what you’ve built and how consumers shop don’t match. It’s about telling a shopper you understand them, what they like and what they’re after. It’s about being able to tell the customer what’s in-stock and how to get what’s not in stock. It’s providing a way to pickup online orders at a store or have an in-store purchase delivered to a home. And if something is not right, it’s about offering an easy way to return an item by mail, delivery service or in a store. It’s being able to tell digital shoppers when they’ll get what they’ve ordered — and the ability to deliver on that promise. The transactional customer experience: This is the most crass and brutal branch of the experience. The transactional customer experience is all about pricing, promotions and literally delivering the goods. It’s the slice of experience that acknowledges that while customer experience can’t be only about the transaction, in the end, both the consumer and the retailer see a transaction as the goal. And, so yeah, it’s important. This is where the art of the deal lives. Consumers expect to be treated fairly. They want to trust the retailer they’re doing business with. If they see a price online, they expect to be able get that price in the store. In fact, consumers want a good value. Shoppers have come to expect low, low prices. Parents in a recent survey indicated that price was even more important that quality when it comes to back-to-school items. But the discount game is a dangerous one for retailers. Constantly slashing prices obviously cuts into profit margins. It’s also hard to beat Amazon on price, which brings us back to experience. No question, retailers need to pay attention to the transactional customer experience. But the way to win against Amazon is to pick the right spots in which to excel in the arenas of aesthetic and logistic customer experience. There is no doubt that “customer experience,” as a phrase and an imperative, is with us for the long-haul. That’s a good thing. It’s a clear sign that e-commerce has reached a tipping point. Consumers can go online and, to varying degrees, find what they’re looking for and buy those things. The backstage machinery to handle the basics is up and running. The stakes are higher now. Consumers expect much more than the basics. Now comes the time to make digital shopping more than a transaction. Now comes the time to make e-commerce an experience, a remarkable and memorable experience — the kind of experience, most importantly, that consumers can barely resist repeating. Blender photo by Paul Bailey, published under Creative Commons license. Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.