Ever since I started working in the professional world, I’ve needed to buy new suits and dress clothes about every six months. I used to go to the department store and wander around frustrated. I didn’t know the current trends or the inventory – and didn’t want to invest the time getting to know them – and I had a hard time selecting and matching fashionable clothes. Furthermore, even though I’d been shopping in the same store for years, the sales associates couldn’t easily help me because they didn’t know anything about me. I was on my own, wasting my time, and limiting my selections to blues and greens.

Fast-forward to about five years ago when, for my birthday, my wife gave me an appointment with a personal shopper, Phillip, at a different department store. Now, about every six months I call Phillip and tell him what I need. He knows what I have in my wardrobe and he knows what I like. He also knows what’s in stock, the styles that are trending, the sizes I wear. Now I just call Phillip and tell him what I need. He puts my preferences in context with the styles, inventory, and what other men like me are buying, and picks out shirts, suits and ties that look good together and complement what I already have. When I go into the store to try them on I usually leave with way more than I had planned to purchase – because it’s been such a great, personalized experience.

So how will any other business earn my loyalty? It’s easy! They can take every opportunity to provide a similarly great experience, online, where I can shop from the comfort of my couch, office or in the doctor’s office waiting room. Here are  a few examples placed into the context of 4 key rules for elevating the digital customer experience: Remember me, Understand me, Help me, Surprise and delight me.

1.   Remember me

My primary bank – where I have my main credit card and mortgage – proactively reached out to me with an email about refinancing and home equity loans. The email directed me to a landing page where I saw relevant content that got me thinking I should consider one of these offers. However, later in the day I went back to the site and the bank showed no knowledge of me or mention of their loans or rates. I went to other sites, comparison shopped, even went back to my bank’s site several times over the week, and eventually took out a loan with another bank. So what could my bank have done differently?

First, instead of sending me to a landing page, they could have made every part of their site a “landing page” that continued to speak to me about the topic that got me interested in the first place. Secondly, the bank could have paid attention to what I was doing, which was perusing their site and others' for home equity line options, risks and rewards. I even put my information into their calculator, but they didn’t take that data and turn it into an opportunity to talk to me in a personalized manner. Furthermore, they could have tied these two things together to close the sale by telling me why I should do business with them instead of going somewhere else. And lastly, since I’m often also on my mobile phone, they could have tried to reach me there as well, via advertising or an app.

2.   Understand me

My colleagues and I have never been happy with our web meeting software, usually because of its poor voice quality. It’s been a five-year saga that finally led me to look around for another solution. First I went to my existing vendor’s website. They didn’t even recognize me as a customer. I logged into their online app and spent some time analyzing our usage. They didn’t engage me there either, even after I gave strong indications that I was digging for more information. Then I went to another vendor’s site that I’d visited many times before. This vendor had a real opportunity to pull me away from my existing vendor, but every time I went to their site I got the exact same experience that I have with my current vendor. So what could they do differently to win my business?

They could engage me based on my high-level attributes. For instance, my IP address would show that I’m from a high-tech company in Boston, so they could offer me relevant case studies from other respected high-tech firms in Boston. Or since they were actually in Boston exhibiting at a trade show the very day I was on their site, they could have invited me to come meet with them and engage in person. Or they could have paid more attention to my affinities – such as the fact that I was reading articles about tech-focused businesses, and looking at web meeting software versus payment software or any of the other types of software they offer – and provided me more focused content based on those interests.

3.  Help me

Sites should make it easy and enjoyable for me to reach my goal. At home, my wife and I needed to replace all of our kitchen appliances. I recently bought a new microwave and a new dishwasher, and now the stove is on the fritz. So I went to the same online store and was shopping around for a new stove. With these big-ticket items, you’d expect some level of attention by the store, especially when showing interest in a particular product. With kitchen appliances, homeowners typically want to match colors, looks and/or brands. But was there any recognition that I was a returning customer, who recently made a sizeable purchase? No, instead there was a huge missed opportunity. I eventually found a stove I wanted on their site, but because of their extreme lack of attention to my needs, when another retailer offered me a discount on shipping, I made the switch. What could the first store have done to keep me as a customer?

They could have helped me right away by keeping track of my browsing and buying history. They could have paid attention to the fact that I recently bought a microwave and a dishwasher, factored that in, and recommended the best stoves for me. And then when I’d shown a lot of interest in a few stoves, but left to look at other sites and came back, it would have been nice if they’d directed me right to my recently viewed items instead of making me search for those products all over again. Which leads me to the fourth rule of a great digital customer experience ...

4.  Surprise and delight me

I want to buy a decent stove, but I’m not an expert and I really don’t care to be one. I need to learn from other people or sources of content. If the first retailer would have proactively put me in touch with other stove-buyers who were like me, I could have learned from them. Instead I was poring through reviews that weren’t very relevant. It was challenging and frustrating; the store was putting the onus on me to become an expert on stoves. I simply want to let the store know what I need and have others help me. That would have gone a long way, but there’s more. The store missed a real opportunity to reward my loyalty. At one point they had promoted an offer for free delivery, but I’d forgotten about it. If they’d only done a little extra to recognize me as a good customer and remind me of relevant, available offers, such as free delivery, I would have felt valued. Instead, they lost me.

The Bottom Line

The opportunities to remember, understand, help and surprise/delight customers are endless, and can go beyond relevant offers or recommendations, to enable better functionality, increased convenience, ease of use, and time savings. True real-time personalization allows brands to connect and engage with individuals to create the ultimate, intimate customer experience. This is what the next 20 years of digital disruption will be about: providing a better digital customer experience that’s much more like my personalized in-store customer experience with Phillip.

Marketers have strived to deliver these one-to-one experiences for decades, and with today's technology, that dream is finally attainable. Learn more about the past, present and future of one-to-one personalization in our full-length book, One-to-One Personalization in the Age of Machine LearningDownload it for free today!