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Clearly, we need to do better.

And that’s not to say we’re not doing well — we just need to do better. All of us.

As we look ahead to 2018, that’s the resounding message coming to us all from the only people whose opinions really matter: the customers. Good thing the path to doing better seems fairly clear.

Looking through a veritable sea of think pieces on what to expect in 2018, reviews of what happened in 2017 and the state of the state of things, two data points stood out to me as particularly telling:

1) A 2016 study found that 75 percent of responding companies said one of their main innovation objectives was to improve customer experience.

2) Several 2017 studies suggested customers’ actual experiences are getting worse. For instance, in Forrester’s 2017 U.S. Customer Experience Index, the number of brand ranking as “excellent” in CX dropped to zero, and brands in the “poor” category rose to 23 percent.

And while one year is not enough time to effect systemic change in huge brands and organizations with hundreds or thousands of locations, the dissonance there should be at least telling if not alarming.

But here’s the other key finding from that otherwise dolorous Forrester report:

The top emotions that drive customer loyalty in traditional retail are feeling appreciated, respected and valued. For example, 91 percent of customers who feel valued plan to stay with the brand and 89 percent plan to spend more. This proves that emotion affects retailers’ bottom line: A one-point improvement in a CX Index score can lead to an incremental $244 million in revenue for big-box retailers.

While the first is broader and the second traditional retail focused, the larger point is still valid: Brands need to provide better customer experiences, and the ones that do — mostly by making their customers feel “appreciated, respected and valued” — will reap the benefits.

As Blaine Hurst, the president and incoming CEO next year of fast casual titan Panera Bread, recently told

2018 is undoubtedly the “Year of the Guest.” It’s about helping guests get the food they crave, when and how they want it.

For us, that means providing craveable, clean options, while ramping up digital purchases through kiosk, web and mobile. It also means rolling out delivery, which meets the unmet demand for clean options as an alternative to pizza and Chinese.

Additionally, by tapping into the 28 million members in our MyPanera loyalty program, we will garner insights into menu selection, guest satisfaction and cafe performance — all things that will help us drive engagement and further improve each guest’s experience.

In other words, next year (and really every year) has to be the “Year of the Customer,” and technology applied in service of the larger goal will help us get there. Technology for technology’s sake is a road to nowhere. Technology applied deftly and intelligently to allow brands to create wow-worthy experiences and to better personalize those experiences, on the other hand, is the road forward.

One could certainly make the argument that falling CX scores could possibly indicate not so much of a lack of performance on the part of brands as does a rise in consumers developing more discriminating and discerning — or demanding — tastes.

Good for them. They have every reason to be entitled; it is their hard-earned dollars we’re asking for, after all.

So I could sit here and tell you that blockchain and mobile and kiosks and IoT and AI will be the top tech trends of next year, and they probably will be, but it’s not the technology that’s the key. That may sound surprising coming from an advocate for technology solutions, but here’s the rub: It’s not the what; it’s the how and the why of it that matters.

Yes, you need to devote resources to IoT-enabled, shelf-level inventory management, blockchain-enabled supply chain control, mobile payments and experiences (not apps), and smarter and smarter algorithms and chatbots and AI-informed personalization. But it’s all got to be done with a carefully thought out purpose and diligently constructed path to purchase in mind.

2017 was a year of wonders in interactive customer experience design and execution. It does sometimes feel as though we’re living in and creating an age of wonders, as both brands and consumers, as the reach of technology expands our own as well. If we’re smart about it, if we continue to make the wonder happen, this is just the beginning.

Here’s to a happy and prosperous, and wondrous, New Year — and many more after that.

(Cover image courtesy of iStock.)
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