When one year ends, another begins, bringing renewed ambition and rejuvenated vision to any given organization. Though new strategies build upon current initiatives, companies are able to wipe the slate clean, in a sense, tending to engagement techniques and marketing tactics with fresh eyes and clear minds. Each year, the customer experience grows increasingly important, and as 2014 approaches, this particular element of the customer journey has never been more vital for prolonged success.

"You can't understand customer experience in isolation," says Denis Pombriant, managing principal at Beagle Research Group, LLC. "It's one of those things that embodies the workings of many other processes. In short, it is the end product of much work and cogitation, and if you wish to understand the future of CX, it's best to go upstream to root causes."

Companies across industries are well aware that, in today's market, customer experience stands as the primary differentiator. To remain competitive, businesses must put the customer at the center of all they do in order to cultivate loyalty and safeguard trust. But, as we look to January, certain strategic trends continue to dominate the space, indicating that businesses and brands of all types are already actively working to guarantee the best customer experience possible. Here are just four of the most prevalent trends gaining buzz today:  

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The Truth Will Set You Free

Beyond all other elements, companies must build the customer experience upon trust. From employee engagement to customer care, every aspect of the customer journey filters into the overall experience, meaning each piece must focus on providing consistency and value. As Ingrid C Lindberg, chief customer experience officer at Prime Therapeutics, highlights, companies will no longer be able to fake their way to the top, as transparency will become paramount to long-term loyalty.

"The brand myths will be penalized," Lindberg emphasizes. "There are an awful lot of companies talking about their exceptional experiences or the importance of the experience. Experience is the new 'it' word. The reality is, talking about it doesn't mean you're delivering what you promise." 

Lindberg recognizes that the future of customer experience depends upon employees who have both the right skill set and the passion necessary to usher their given company into the future. Businesses will also be expected to make changes based on customer feedback, for consumers don't care if the company listens—they want to know they've been heard by seeing this insight in action. Many organizations continuously seek feedback from consumers, but few put this insight to good use. Customers want to know that, when they invest time in answering surveys and filling out questionnaires, that this voice of the customer data will be used constructively to improve experience. 

Loni Stark, director of product, solution, and industry marketing at Adobe, also notes that, by emphasizing trust, more customer experience initiatives will aspire to delight customers rather than merely satisfy, inspiring brand love instead of simply quelling complaints. "The digital disruption not only drives greater transparency into which brands are being naughty, but also rewards with loyalty those that are being nice." Both Web and mobile access offers the public an opportunity to decipher which brands measure up and which ones might have something to hide.

Create Meaning, Protect Privacy

When developing strong customer experience strategy, creating meaningful connections holds much power. According to Mark Gehman, director at Perficient, building relationships that focus on relevance are the most expedient path to providing value. In 2014, organizations will invest in the proper Web platforms that allow them to maximize relevancy and create personalized content to enhance engagement. Much like Amazon's current technique, more companies will begin to offer targeted messaging as it relates to previous Web interactions and engagement history.

Companies will also begin to refocus the contact center from handling individual calls to building customer loyalty. "Rather than just answering phone calls or emails, Relationship Hubs will handle conversations that cut across all remote channels, including chat, email, and Twitter," says Bruce Temkin, managing partner at Temkin Group. "They will integrate customer management systems to recognize customers across different interactions in different channels over an extended time period, and treat customers as if they know them."

Yet, while organizations work to strengthen meaning by improving relationships, an emphasis on ensuring privacy will only serve to perpetuate trust. "With an increased focus on safeguarding customer identity and private information, companies worldwide are investing in technology and services that help mitigate risk, prevent fraud, reduce fraud-related loss, and improve the customer experience—all while decreasing contact center operating costs," says Nancy Porte, vice president of customer experience, Verint Systems. Also, this method will encourage loyalty, as consumers will not need to login repeatedly.

Social Butterflies Take Flight

Though social media often falls under the marketing department's responsibilities, such platforms will soon become an integral part of customer service in 2014. The two functions will come together to further the customer experience by bringing social insights into the contact center to resolve current problems and prevent future issues. Paul Stockford, chief analyst at Saddletree Research, notes that, as social networks gain momentum, so will customer service careers focusing on social media management. Social customer care positions require an entirely different skill set than managing phone and email service, for professionals must decide which conversations to join and how best to engage the customer. Most importantly, companies that embrace social media will need to keep in mind that customers are talking about them, not to them, requiring a completely different approach.

Stark also highlights that, as social media becomes an essential component for both marketing and service efforts, such platforms will ultimately open the pathways of communication. "As marketers master the digital tools, they will finally be able to humanize the digital experience, which leads to deeper connections. Content and data across social, mobile, Web, and other channels will unite from their early starts in silos to work together, from the customer context. We will move beyond the wink of a tweet and the poke of a text message to a relationship built on brand trust," she says.

Be Where the People Are 

As Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee, notes, there isn't one channel that solely drives customer satisfaction. With today's omnichannel environment, customers expect a consistent and positive brand experience across all channels if they are to remain loyal.

"Channel switching is now driven by customer preference and the customer journey," says Amas Tenumah vice president, operations at Teleflora. "Customers want to move seamlessly from channel to channel, not because they're dissatisfied, but because that's their preference. And they want the company to be able to contextualize those experiences so that they can start a conversation online and then switch to phone. The challenge is that, as we move to an omnichannel world, how do you design these experiences so that customers can move between channels without having to start their conversations all over again?"

Freed highlights that, in 2014, business leaders will increasingly seek the competitive edge by demanding multichannel visibility and benchmarking of the customer experience across all touchpoints to help them support better business decisions and gauge where their business stands with regard to satisfaction and loyalty as compared to competitors and peers. They'll also look for solutions that help them identify specific areas of improvement, prioritize initiatives, and predict the financial outcomes of customer experience improvement initiatives. Such tactics come as response to the rising power of today's savvy consumer. With the barriers to switching brands lower than ever, delivering a positive customer experience is the ultimate differentiator, and they must constantly be where the customer chooses to be if they hope to retain relevance and loyalty.

"Creating a seamless, connected experience across all channels of consumer interactions, from social, email, and voice, to SMS, Web, and the latest mobile application, will finally garner true advancements due to the desire for right-time customer engagement strategies," says Sheryl Kingstone, director at Yankee Group. "Timing is everything. The goal is to send the right message to the right customer at the right time and through the right channel to increase response rate. But it's not just about the message. It is also about the interactivity of the dialogue across the customer lifecycle. No longer can inventory and pricing data not be available to be readily leveraged across all customer channels. Omnichannel is more than just about a marketing message, but an intelligent conversation across the organizational silos."