The ultimate guide to creating personal experiences for your customers
The way organizations address and engage their audiences is critical to how they are perceived. And if you can make that experience as personalized as possible, people will feel drawn to your brand.
What is a personal experience?
A personal experience is an experience that’s unique to an individual. The experience itself can involve any kind of interaction with people or participation in activities.
In a business context ‘personal experience’ is shorthand for ‘personalized experience’ i.e. an experience engineered by an organization to fit the personal circumstances, preferences and expectations of the individual it engages. In doing so, organizations need to scale this effort across entire audience groups.
A personal experience can be brief and fleeting to the protracted and immersive. Individuals that have had numerous personalized interactions with a brand will, over time, typically regard this as a singular experience rather than a series of unconnected events.
Personal experiences are distinct from impersonal experiences. An impersonal experience is one where the individual is not addressed or considered based on their unique characteristics. The gray area in between ‘personal’ and ‘impersonal’ is where the majority of current marketing practice sits: identifying certain shared characteristics to target audience segments rather than treating each individual differently.
Why is personal experience important for customers?
Customers value personalized service. A GBH Insights/Epsilon study found that 80% of consumers are more likely to make a purchase when brands offer personalized experiences. What’s true of consumers is also borne out in the B2B sphere. According to Salesforce research, three-quarters of business buyers have an expectation that the companies they purchase form will provide a personalized experience.
Looking more closely at why customers feel this way, here are six primary reasons:
It’s about fundamental human dignity
At the root of personal wellbeing is society’s affirmation of who you are as an individual. Whatever your race, gender, sexuality, age or favorite football team – each human is entitled to the dignity of being treated as an individual, in sole charge of their personal destiny and empowered to act however they see fit. This is very important to understanding why personal experience is important for customers.
The other related aspect is that experiences are experiential. In other words, they require us to be present and demand our participation. They are expressive, dynamic and immersive. Experiences contribute to ‘the human experience’; i.e. what it is to be alive. Without getting too deep and intellectual on this, the idea of a personal experience is significantly more appealing to a person than the idea of an impersonal transaction.
Repeating yourself is exhausting
Imagine an office worker, Martha, who visits a cafe each lunch break to buy a sandwich. The servers on the sandwich counter work alternate days. If it’s Server A’s shift, Martha waits in line and orders her regular: tuna salad and turkey on sourdough with mustard mayo. On Server B’s days, she gets asked, “Martha, the usual?” before she’s even got to the counter, and then receives it fresh just the way she likes it. Both servers recognize Martha by sight, but only Server B knows she just got a promotion at work, drives a Honda and is spending the holidays in Florida.
There’s a lot going on here, but one thing that sticks out is the frustration and inefficiency of having to repeat yourself. Knowing the customer’s name and what sandwich they typically order is 99% of what the shop needs to offer a personalized experience.
A personalized address cuts through the noise
Receiving a letter marked “Homeowner” or “Occupier” or getting an email that begins “Dear Customer” are sure signs that the proposition they carry might not be right for you. The context for personal experiences is simply that every individual is inundated with communications and needs help prioritizing what to give their attention to. Something generic is, by definition, only likely to fit the unique requirements of an individual by chance.
Even the promise of something that appears personalized can help customers cut through the noise and give time to focus on specific offers and messages.
Customers can be confident that what happens next will be relevant
A personal experience is a positive experience because it feels appropriate to what the individual wants and needs. If an organization can drive enough ‘micro-experiences’ (one-off engagements and interactions) then pretty soon the individual perceives this as one seamless experience of that organization’s brand.
From here, it’s obvious to the individual that it’s worth sticking around to see what happens next; continuing to purchase or try new products and services. This leads to higher customer retention rates for the business and the cycle continues. The more of the experience the customer gets, the more inclined they are to stay. What’s crucial is ensuring that the personalization of the experience keeps pace with change. Customers change, so personalized experiences have to change with them.
There’s a clear purpose for giving up your data
It’s not rocket science for consumers to work out that brands are able to provide personal experiences by harnessing personal data. The classic example is someone browsing their social media feed and seeing offers and messages pop-up based on recent online behavior. This has become the norm to such an extent that it’s really noticeable when it doesn’t work. Who hasn’t muttered “there’s a glitch in The Matrix” or “must be something with the algorithm” when personalization goes wrong?
This state of affairs is grudgingly accepted by the many customers who really don’t feel great about giving up so much personal data unless there's a good reason. According to Accenture, 83% of consumers are happy to share their personal data to enable a personalized experience. Brands can smooth away these concerns by demonstrating their commitment to delivering great personal experiences as a direct consequence of disclosing data.
Upfront reassurance in case something goes wrong
Hearing individual stories about personal experiences can be very illuminating. People will often rave about a great customer experience in terms of personal service, attentiveness, consideration, thoughtfulness, sensitivity and so on. When you dig deeper, the really impactful stories are ones where customers were initially anxious or trepidatious about purchasing a product or taking out a service.
Imagine how much better you’d feel – and potentially how much you’d want to be a return customer and tell all your friends – having a personal experience in connection to any of these scenarios:
Going on your first flight as a nervous flier
Having serious food allergies and visiting a new restaurant
Taking out a mortgage for the first time
How to offer a personalized experience
A concerted and strategic attempt to deliver good, personalized experiences requires some planning. Here are 9 things to consider when going about creating personal experiences for your customers.
Put aside time and budget
Accept that personal experiences are more than the product of being more thoughtful and ‘nicer’ to customers. These things cost money and require time to organize and deliver. The key will be to achieve the perception among customers that you’ve oriented your entire business around them and can scale this same commitment to every single other customer you have.
Personalization is about anticipation
As providers of products and services, brands know what’s coming next in the customer journey. This enables them to anticipate planned steps and be accustomed to dealing with certain types of unplanned events. This is a great platform for providing personal experiences; using an understanding of the overall customer experience and applying knowledge about each person to make each one unique.
Personal experiences start with personal data
Customers should be treated as individuals with specific needs and preferences. Before you get to that point, establish your foundations with accurate records of simple personal data: name, contact information, purchase history, etc. How do they like to be addressed: sir, madam, first name? How do they prefer to be contacted, and does this change according to context or timing? What special instructions or preferences have they expressed in the past? Begin pulling a framework together for the basic data you’ll need to personalize their experience with you.
Then set an objective to get to know individual customers better than just the personal data you can easily harvest. For example, for B2B customers, what are their deadlines and internal processes around procurement? And at a more human level, what do individual customers like doing in their spare time?
Harness digital technology
Those sepia-tinged images of 1920s Main St with shopkeepers doffing their hats, knowing every customer by name and attending to every need? It’s not that customer experience can’t work like that anymore, it’s that it’s extremely expensive and almost impossible to scale without the use of digital technology.
Get to grips with all the digital channels and touchpoints available to you. Stay abreast of technologies like augmented reality, artificial intelligence and cryptocurrencies. Examine opportunities around data analytics too, using historic customer behavior patterns – for example – to come up with personalized recommendations.
Develop a customer-centric culture
We’ve set out how necessary time and budget are to this challenge – but personal experiences won’t come sustainably or efficiently without cultural change.
Make personal customer experiences the responsibility of everyone in your organization and truly customer at the center of everything. There are two main threads to this: how you structure your business and how you empower your people.
Start by conducting a comprehensive review of the customer journey, using customer journey maps to visualize and detail each point of customer interaction. These points of contact are your opportunities to influence the personal experience.
Then, with the people inside your business, bring them together to understand why personal experiences are important, reward them when they achieve them, and encourage individuals to contribute to best practice. Training will be very important here, especially around how to collect data about customers so this can be continually fed back into the process of delivering personal experiences.
Become a beacon of exceptional customer service
Customer service is among the biggest influences on personal experience. This is because customers use customer service when they need help. As such, dealing with customer service or support departments can be particularly stressful when you have to repeat yourself or aren’t treated as an individual, in line with your stated preferences. It’s a make-or-break moment where the customer's decision to remain loyal or go elsewhere can come down to how well you’ve delivered a personalized experience.
Measure customer metrics
You can only provide a good personal experience by listening to what each person says about the experience you’re giving them. A fast, accurate and efficient way of doing this is to collect regular customer metrics via customer surveys. Things you can measure include:
How satisfied customers are with a specific aspect of their experience
This helps determine whether to tweak these aspects accordingly – good for issuing surveys in response to trigger events during the customer journey
How satisfied customers are in general
This is worth measuring periodically so you can see the trend over time and map this against drivers influencing it
How much effort customers have had to go to in order to complete an action
Effort is a good metric because it is not emotive and thereby a reliable indicator. The idea is to reduce customer effort in executing processes in their customer experience
How likely customers are to recommend you
Metrics like NPS (Net Promoter Score) are among the most popular. This shows how loyal individual customers are; indicating their probability of churn and allowing you to pinpoint aspects of their experience they are particularly positive or negative about. You can also publish aggregated NPS scores to show the world what customers think about the personal experience you deliver each of them
Metrics are good because they don’t burden customers with having to fill out lengthy questionnaires. Long customer surveys are a surefire way to diminish the personal customer experience! And in any case, people generally ignore or delete them. Far higher response rates are achievable via simple 1-click surveys – often with just a single, simple question.
Brilliant basics and magic touches
A good way to think about the composition of personal experiences is as memories. Experiences are memorable when they are particularly wonderful or unpleasant. All the stuff in the middle is largely forgettable. It is therefore the primary objective of businesses to not be memorable for the wrong reasons. A forgettable experience is better than a memorably bad one. Ideally, customers will be suitably delighted that they will remember the experience and why they liked it.
The way to actually address this comes in two parts. The first is getting the basics right. Looking at the journey you put your customers through and actively questioning where you can improve it. You can research and apply these changes through customer feedback metrics or focus groups, or merely by ‘mystery shopping’ your own customer journey by walking in their footsteps. Look for friction, delay and extraneous effort – and make changes to remove these wherever possible.
The second, and most exciting part, is the magic that you can sprinkle on top. These are the eye-catching initiatives that organizations can contrive to make their personal experiences stand out. For example, a free coffee and donut on your birthday, or a surprise hamper in the hotel room after the manager finds out it’s your anniversary.
Two things to bear in mind about these magic touches. The first is that, without the basics in place, they can seem like gimmicks. So what if the hotel gives you a free hamper if, on arrival, your requested check-in time wasn’t honored and there’s no room left in the parking garage? Second, it’s often the surprise that makes it memorable rather than if it’s simply in the terms and conditions of the loyalty card scheme that you, for example, receive a free beverage once a year.
Continuously collect and act upon customer feedback
As well as metrics, it’s vital to collect all sorts of customer feedback throughout the customer journey. Fresh feedback highlights what’s working and what isn’t – and what’s liked and disliked – in the here and now. The whole purpose of gathering all this feedback is to act upon it, both directly in the event that a customer has a problem you can rush to (thereby delivering a great personal experience) or indirectly in using that data input to inform how you develop the personal experience in future.
Feedback should always be a continuous process because people, products, services, contexts and requirements are always changing.
Personalization in marketing
Personalization is now among the most critical aspects of marketing practice because of the benefits it brings to organizations. These include:
Increased engagement and loyalty
Enhanced brand perception, recommendations and reviews
More efficient investment returns when marketing to defined segments
Closer customer relationships and interactions
More opportunities for cross-selling and upselling
The stats speak for themselves. Here are three that demonstrate the value of personalization in marketing.
91% are more likely to shop with brands that recognize, remember and provide relevant offers and recommendations (Accenture)
75% of what consumers watch on Netflix and 35% of what they buy on Amazon comes from personalized product recommendation algorithms (McKinsey)
77% of consumers have chosen, recommended or paid for a brand offering personalized experiences (Forrester)
Some examples of marketing personalization include:
Timely communications tied to critical moments – for example an insurance company reminding customers in a given region how to make a claim the day before a storm is due to hit
Optimizing email signatures for targeted messaging, promotions, and calls to action
Including the recipient’s name in the email subject line
Bonus discounts or thank you gifts tied to purchase milestones
Helpful content sent out that’s relevant to the individual’s stage in the customer journey
Sharing reviews and product recommendations relevant to the consumer and their recent activity
For more on this, check out the recent Exclaimer blog on Why Personalization in Marketing is Key to Success.
Using every channel you own to create personalized experiences
Earlier in this guide we introduced the concept of customer journey mapping. This is where you create a visual map of the customer journey; specifically the process gates and interaction touch points where ‘experience’ is derived by each customer.
What’s great about this approach is understanding how to build and maximize an omnichannel approach to customer engagement and – ultimately – satisfaction. In other words, a means of actively instigating a fully immersive personal experience that leverages every media, communications channel and human interaction that the customer encounters.
Why omnichannel is key to personal experience
The principle of omnichannel communications is to surround the customer or audience with a seamless experience, regardless of the communications channel they opt to use. Omnichannel is distinct from ‘multichannel’ which merely recognizes that each communications channel (e.g. email, phone, website/chat, app, social, in-store) exists and is given somewhat equal weight. Omnichannel sees channels working together.
Omnichannel is important because of the way consumers interact with brands in the digital world. A customer doesn’t decide one day that the IKEA sofa they want will be purchased online. It’s more plausible that their journey could switch multiple times between visiting the e-commerce store to look at different colors and fabrics, going along to the physical store to sit down on the sofa, using the mobile app to browse finance options, and exchanging messages with a knowledge expert about a specific query. An omnichannel strategy doesn’t just facilitate all those channels – it ensures the customer can move between channels without restarting their journey. It feels like one seamless experience, even though behind the scenes there’s a lot of technology ensuring that data is exchanged and presented appropriately.
The brand experience must be consistent
Whether you can achieve a true omnichannel strategy right now, or are still building up your multichannel capabilities, brand consistency across all your communications channels is absolutely critical.
This relates to the idea of brand experience – the total, cumulative effect upon a person’s experience of interacting with a brand. Brand consistency is vital to brand experience.
Make this happen by first ensuring your brand is in all the places it should be; specifically those customer touchpoints. If a customer receives a communication from you then it needs to be branded. This should be simple for email, chat, web and app interactions, but you can even do this in face-to-face interactions – it’s why store employees wear uniforms!
Back this up by identifying brand experience best practice in your organization and bringing all your other communications channels and touchpoints up to the same feel and standard. That way, as customers switch from one channel to another, the experience feels continuous and remains tailored to them.
The use of business email for personalized customer experiences
Often overlooked in the arsenal of customer communications channels is one of the most common and trusted – business email.
There's another distinction here – between what we’re calling business email (emails between individuals) and marketing email (promotional emails). It’s the latter that’s always a primary consideration in consistent brand experience and omnichannel/multichannel strategy. But why not the former too?
There are many factors that explain this, not least the power of email marketing to achieve massive scale for minimal investment and resource. It is fast, easy and inexpensive to send a marketing email to thousands of contacts at once. By contrast, a single ‘send’ of business email could take equally long but only go to a single person. The biggest issue, however, is that the subject of that business email won’t really have anything to do with marketing.
Branding and marketing are the same but different
According to MailChimp, the average open rate in email campaigns is 21%. We know that click rates are far lower, at just 2.5%, so the amount of emails being physically read probably sits somewhere between those figures. Now consider business email; perhaps someone at a company replying to an emailed customer enquiry. The chances of that email being opened are close to 100%, the chances of it being read must surely be around the same level.
The lesson in all this is that business email is significantly more trusted as a communications medium. So it stands to reason that marketers should be making business email a bigger part of their brand experience efforts.
Many marketers are actively redressing this imbalance by considering the immense opportunity presented by enveloping business email into customers’ personal experiences. They are doing this by harnessing the email signatures of company employees and associates to ensure a continuation of customer brand experience for individuals. Specifically:
Ensuring that email signatures carry consistent branding and brand messaging across the organization. No employees should be permitted to use old versions of logos, or ones that are mis-sized, misshapen or do not render correctly on all available customer email clients and platforms.
Utilizing the ‘real estate’ of the email signature space (or email footer) to communicate pertinent marketing banner promotions and calls to action.
Harnessing underlying segmentation data to allow different signature campaigns to be included in email signatures according to both who is sending the business emails and who is receiving them.
Embedding other functionality into email signatures such as customer feedback survey questions and response icons, in order to collect the maximum volume of fresh, relevant and trusted customer insights data.
Focusing on the personal experience of customers will improve marketing efforts and how your business goes about creating relationships. By harnessing business email as part of the mix, organizations can differentiate themselves in their market – truly using every channel available to create consistent, responsive and personalized customer experiences.