Why is a great customer experience so challenging for businesses to deliver? Shouldn’t delivering an incredible, remarkable, excellent experience to the customer be the most important objective before, during and after every transaction? After all, a happy customer is likely to be a loyal customer, spend more over time and even evangelize your brand on your behalf? Shouldn’t extreme customer service be the Holy Grail for every business?

Why then is customer care, customer service and customer experience still such an afterthought for so many companies?

I think it’s because up until recently, if a company provided mediocre or poor customer experiences, it simply didn’t affect them as much. The consequences for providing poor customer experiences were minor. Some companies even build significant budget padding around poor customer experiences, knowing they’ll be handling complaints for shoddy products or services. Perhaps that works in the short-term, but over the long haul, I doubt it.

A business might have lost a customer every now and again in the past, but unless their was a massive, egregious event or disaster, their reputation probably stayed fairly intact. In the past, customers didn’t have very power to vent in a public arena and the risks of providing poor customer service was much lower.

Today, that risk is much greater. Now, with blogs and Twitter, Facebook and YouTube at everyone’s fingertips, every person with a social media account can talk right back, complain and vent. And the internet is littered with stories of brands (and the resulting PR nightmares) that simply didn’t take the power of social media and online sharing seriously. Think of Fedex’s Delivery Fail Video, Dominos Pizza Employee Video, and United Breaks Guitars, just to name a few.

So what defines an excellent customer experience? Well, I think it’s like a great comedian – it depends on your timing, your content, your audience and your delivery.

Umair Haque wrote a great blog some years ago for the Harvard Business Review titled If You Were the Next Steve Jobs (…what problems would you try to solve?). In that post, he described an experience in a coffee shop very similar to something that  happened to me soon after, as I went for breakfast with a friend. I walked into my favorite French cafe in Petaluma (Water Street Bistro), where I usually order a Cafe au Lait – very light on the coffee, please – ”just the smell of coffee, heavy on the Lait”. Before I had finished saying “Cafe au…”, from behind the counter, Vanessa, one of the amazing staff at the bistro, said “Hi, you want a Cafe au Roohi?”

It surprised and delighted me to realize that not only did she know my name, she remembered what I like. She’d even named the drink after me ???? Ok, so no-one else probably orders such a spineless coffee, but that’s not the point :-). She recognized, acknowledged and created a personalized experience for me – and in that fleeting moment, earned a customer for life.

When we treat our customers like just another transaction, just another name in the sea of possible revenue, just another person or business who can add to our bottom line, we forget what makes every single one of us fundamentally human. Each of us wants to be seen, heard and acknowledged whenever possible. We want to matter, to belong, to feel important – in some way. And particularly when we’re paying. We want some kind of value for that hard-earned dollar.

The wrong way to personalize the experience? When the Safeway cashier hurriedly reads my name on the receipt, mispronounces my name and says “Thanks for shopping with us today, Miss (how do you say your name?) Molder? (not my name by the way)”. It’s just a pointless way to acknowledge my purchase. The right way? When we know our customer’s needs and create an experience that’s tailored to fit, the way Vanessa did. Otherwise, please don’t bother.

The point is that to remain relevant and earn loyalty in an increasingly fragmented and multiple-choice world, we have to create exceptional experiences that make our customers feel important, feel valued and feel human. Your business will benefit. Fewer complaints and support calls referrals and word-of-mouth marketing, shared content and increased customer satisfaction and retention all lead to lower marketing and acquisition costs and higher order value and repeat sales. Good for business, good for the customer.

Every customer wants to know “What can you do for me?”….so what do you really do for your customer?