30-second summary:

  • As the digital age emerged, brands focused on transactions. This drove a wedge between them and their customer
  • It is now vital for brands to build relationships with their audience. Data can play a huge role in this, but we need to be careful with how we handle it
  • Alex Hunter, ex-Head of Digital at Virgin Group, shares 5 tips for moving towards a relationship-driven approach to buyer experience and examines why customer loyalty is now so important

Alex Hunter provides 5 tips on moving towards a relationship-driven approach to buyer experienceFor most of the digital age, brands placed too great a focus on transaction. We inserted layer after layer of technology to do so. But with each layer of technology between us and the customer, it pushed them further and further away.

When these transactions were happening, it would generate huge amounts of data, most of which we would ignore because it was irrelevant to the transaction. If we shift to a relationship-driven approach, all the data we thought was exhausting is now invaluable. However, in the last three to five years, the customer has realized, ‘wait a minute, I’m a human being, and I expect to be treated like one – not just some user or data point!

As such, we should be using this data to drive understanding of our relationship with the customer and to tailor the experience at an individual level to predict the customer’s future needs – but without being creepy!

I provide five pointers for marketing leaders looking to shift their buyer experience from transactional to relationship-driven, and examine the importance of customer loyalty:

  1. Use the data; but remember the people behind it
  2. Harness insights from customer-facing employees
  3. Embrace 3rd Party Depreciation to build trust
  4. Avoid a technology-led strategy
  5. Avoid change for change’s sake

1. Use the data; but remember the people behind it

The key mantra which I shout at anybody that will listen to me is that you cannot forget, under any circumstances, that behind every click and every call is a human being, and no matter what we want them to actually do – click, buy, or sign the contract – they will only do that if there is a sense of trust and value. We cannot manipulate this process anymore.

Instead, we must really understand that human beings are making human decisions now more than ever, we’re not being coerced into purely priced-based decisions, there are so many other factors we are now taking into consideration, consciously and subconsciously, and data can help us understand that – but it doesn’t tell the full story.

Hotel Pillow ChocolateBy listening to what the customer tells us implicitly and explicitly, it allows us to create moments of delight inside, outside and alongside the core customer journey. We can infer taste, and we can use that to do tiny things like a hotel chain placing your favourite chocolate or flower or smell in your room. Then, it’s not just another hotel room, it’s somewhere comfortable and familiar, and we feel an affinity to that brand.

We should be creating channels for hearing what our customers are telling us. This starts with knowing your audience. Knowing what or how they think, feel, act, love, and even hate; and understanding when and where they will communicate this. For platforms like Instagram, TikTok or Twitch, to be present on these platforms doesn’t have to mean selling or advertising. Join these platforms to listen first. You’ll find your audience is pouring out information about who they are as people!

As the saying goes, ‘data means nothing to the individual.’ Remember you are dealing with human beings, and make sure you have the touchpoints in place to get to know them.

2. Harness insights from customer-facing employees

Data and insights help us open the conversation, not just with our customers, but also our customer-facing employees, making sure that all the incredible insight they have – both structured and unstructured – from interacting with our customers every single day is filtering back up in a meaningful way to the c-suite, or whoever is making the ultimate strategic decisions. We should be building bridges between customer service, support, or success with marketing.

Customer Service insights are key to buyer experienceStructurally, this means creating consistent touchpoints between customer-facing employees and marketing leadership. Give these individuals the opportunity to report on all they are hearing. Culturally, we need to build environments that view all feedback – positive or negative – as equal. How many CMOs could name the last time they spoke with a first-line customer support representative? How many first-line representatives would feel comfortable sharing complaints with a member of the C-Suite?

We need to give customer-facing employees the spotlight and support to discuss their invaluable insight into what customers are saying.

Each complaint, criticism, or compliment will provide more colour to the picture, and give marketing leadership the insights they need to drive buyer experience away from being purely transactional.

3. View the death of cookies as an opportunity for trust-building

Since the birth of the cookie, we have relied on it way too heavily to make a lot of assumptions about the people that visit our websites. The changes in the law have allowed customers to take back a sense of privacy and ownership of our data that up until then was being exploited purely for profit, where they had no say on how it was used, collected, stored, or owned.

It’s forced us to be a lot more transparent in how and when we collect customer data, and what they intend to do with it. We should see this as an opportunity to create a better sense of trust between customer and brand. When we force transparency, that’s a great way to build trust, which is absolutely crucial to building a sense of loyalty or emotional connection to a brand.

Transparency is the route to trust. Communicate your approach to data handling and management to your audience, or at the least make it accessible. And if you’re thinking, ‘I can’t do that! My customer would wince if they knew what we know…’ it’s time to get with the times and upgrade your data-handling. Use that as the biggest indicator that you’re not putting buyer experience first.

Again, it comes back to knowing and understanding your audience. How do they want their data to be handled? Only by being open about your practices can you hear feedback and improve. When your customers feel heard, they will trust you.

We have a brilliant opportunity to be more accountable than ever – it’s time to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

4. Avoid a technology-led strategy

The critical thing to remember is that technology is a tool; it’s a means to an end, it’s not the end. It’s not going to revolutionise your business; it’s not going to change the way people perceive you. As soon as we stop weaponizing and fetishizing technology, and just understand that it will get us where we need to go, the conversation becomes much easier.

The harder questions we must ask ourselves is, what do we want our customers to experience? What do we want them to feel when they use our product or service? Get that understood, written down and embodied by everybody in the organisation. Once you have this in place, only then should you ask the question ‘what technology do we need to make that happen?’ If you do that in reverse, and lead with the technology, it’s disastrous.

There are a million tools, platforms, and technologies available now, many of whom will promise the perfect solution for you without even knowing what you need. If you don’t take the time to understand what buyer experience you are aiming to give your customers, you won’t know what technology requirements you have to make that happen.

5. Avoid change for change’s sake

Businesses survive because they’re already doing something fundamentally right, otherwise they wouldn’t exist at all. There is value in how we’ve always done things, and there is value in what we’ve built so far. If we keep trying to iterate on a quarterly basis, we lose the essence of what made us great in the first place, and even more importantly, why people were drawn to us and why they keep coming back. It’s important to balance ambition and aspiration with your fundamentals and core values.

By thrashing about and constantly trying to reach a new corner of the market, we risk alienating those who once trusted us. If we constantly move the goalposts, how can our customers place trust in the experience we are giving them?

We should use first party data to really understand at a mechanical level, why people are coming back to us. We have tools now to really help us understand sentiment by tracking indicators such as willingness to recommend through NPS scores or buyer experience via in-app reviews. We can utilize social media platforms like TikTok, as mentioned, for listening.

NPS can help track buyer experience

Of course, you will have to adapt, evolve, and embrace change (like 3rd party depreciation); but understand what you are doing right, and learn how to deliver this value consistently. Abandoning this in pursuit of new transactions will destroy the relationships you worked so hard to build.

Why are customer loyalty and buyer experience so important?

Customer loyalty has always been important because you don’t want to have to keep reacquiring the same customer over and over again. The more loyal a customer is, the more we learn about them, the more we can adapt to their needs. We can understand why they came to us in the first place, what they might need in the future, and just provide them with a better experience.

That’s the way businesses always worked, but with the digital age, we now have the tools to really understand the provenance of that relationship, the value, both monetarily and from the customer’s perspective as well. It’s shifted the focus of businesses from transaction to relationships.

Customers are no longer a transaction to be squeezed for every possible penny, but an equal participant in a relationship in which both sides are invest time, energy, and money. It’s mutually beneficial.

We should be looking at the changing landscape of data privacy as an opportunity, not a threat: We have a huge advantage over any other period in business history because of the marriage of sentiment and humanity with technology and data. Get that balance right and you’re going to be just fine!


This article is based on an exclusive interview with Alex Hunter conducted by Megan Lupton.

Alex Hunter is a leading marketing and branding authority who was previously Virgin Group’s Head of Digital. As an award-winning and internationally recognised business speaker, Alex is known for his transformational insight and has ensured results for major corporate clients like Twitter, L’Oréal, Pepsi, and IKEA. Alex was listed in The Top Trending Digital Disruption Speakers for 2022.

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