The Path to Personalized Customer Journeys

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Tech-savvy and accustomed to engaging with brands through multiple channels, modern-day consumers are no longer impressed by basic personalization. Nearly every promotional email now arrives customized with the customer's name, and retargeted advertisements for items individuals have shown interest in are everywhere. The techniques are tried and true, but as consumer relationships with brands become more complex, often spanning multiple channels across both digital and physical realms, the definition of a personalized experience—and what it takes to deliver it—is evolving.

A truly personalized customer journey is just that, a journey, and one siloed interaction is not enough to constitute effective personalization, Harley Manning, research director in the customer experience practice at Forrester, says. Rather, personalization should permeate the customer experience at every touch point, incorporating behavioral patterns and preferences to facilitate a seamless journey that rewards customers for their loyalty. Though the road map varies depending on the business, when it comes to building a personalized customer experience, there are fundamental steps every brand must take to ensure that the resulting journey is one that customers want to take again and again.

Personalize Your Brand Promise, and Keep It

Personalized customer journeys start with a deep understanding of the entire customer base and a strategy that aligns with it; this is the brand promise. "Before you can even start thinking about how to delight a specific customer, you have to think about what all of your customers expect from the brand," Manning says. And there's no such thing as a universal brand promise.

Though companies such as Costco and Apple both compete in the consumer electronics space, for example, the two could not be more different. Yet both consistently receive high scores for customer experience because they deliver experiences that, despite being virtually the opposite of each other, are in line with their brand and their customers' expectations.

When consumers walk into an Apple store, they expect one-on-one buying support, and want to talk to a salesperson about differences between products or how they can be customized. At Costco, self-service is the name of the game, and the selection is significantly smaller than at other stores that carry electronics, including Apple. But the comparatively small inventory and limited number of on-the-floor employees is what keeps prices low, and it's why Costco customers love shopping there, Manning says. "If you're a cost leader like Costco, you're not going to try to have a customer experience strategy built around delivering a deluxe level of service. But if you're a luxury brand, focusing on a cost-cutting strategy would be off-strategy as well. You have to personalize the overall experience to reflect what you promise to deliver," he says.

Know Your Customer at Every Part of the Journey

With a well-established and executable brand promise in place, companies can start zeroing in on individual customers to determine how to best personalize their journeys. Analytics plays a critical role here, but must perform different tasks depending on where the customer is in the journey. When a shopper is anonymous—meaning he hasn't shared his email address, signed up to receive information, or made a purchase—personalizing the journey is tougher, but necessary nonetheless.

"A consumer might visit a brand's Web site several times before making any purchases, and everything that happens during those visits is trackable and very telling. Long before...customer[s] actually become...customers, they're searching for things; they're clicking on certain key words, they're viewing different products. These are all behaviors that can help brands personalize the journey," Ray Wang, founder and principal analyst at Constellation Research, says.

One vendor with advanced audience targeting capabilities is Adobe. Recognized as a leader in Forrester's inaugural Wave report on enterprise marketing software suites, the vendor offers solutions that enable brands to analyze consumer activity prior to conversion and identification by factoring in elements including geolocation, device type, and path to site, which determines whether the shopper arrived 

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