Here’s what small shops can teach big business about great customer experiences

Customer data is for more than just sending targeted emails

There’s a lot to be learnt from the UK’s corner shops about making a connection with your customers. These small stores do an excellent job of using customer data to make their experiences easy.

They have a tradition of ordering newspapers for collection, each with the recipients’ name neatly written in the top left corner, folded and laid out on the counter. Customers come into the shop to collect their paper – the staff probably know them by name, so there’s no need to ask. They’ll also know if the customer had any other regular orders, such as milk or bread.

If you have to ask for the same thing every day, you’d feel like a stranger, but corner shop customers don’t have to ask. By making them feel known and understood they have built a valuable connection with their customers.

It’s good for business, too. In this interview Will Orr, general manager of The Times, says “we know Times subscribers are loyal to their newsagents – more than half visit the same store each time they pick up their newspaper.” They’re probably buying more than just newspapers, too: the shop is giving then a reason to return, and that’s an opportunity to do more business.

This is the experience brands need to provide, but for tens of thousands of people, all at the same time: the digital equivalent of having the newspaper of your choice with your name written on it neatly laid out on the counter, ready to be collected. An easy, personal and memorable experience, created with intelligent use of customer data.

Customer data is not just a source of information about your customer. It’s a way of improving your relationship with the customer at a personal level by using data to better understand them. And it’s about connecting with them on a level that makes them think: “That was easy,” followed by “they know what I want, so I’ll come back here again.”

It’s also a critical competitive advantage. Leaving one brand for another is even easier than leaving one corner shop for another. If you can’t make customers feel welcome and their experiences easy, they’ll just go somewhere else.

One of our customers, British bank TSB, has put this concept into action. TSB struggled to get a proper view of what customers were doing and what they wanted, as its customer data was in one place. Gathered from different sources and then scattered across different departments, there was no single repository for the information.

“The limitations of our legacy systems when it came to customer profiles and digital experiences threatened to knock TSB off course,” says Mike Gamble, TSB’s director of analysis and design.

“We needed a complete picture of every person who banks with us, from their history to their needs, to how they move through the customer journey, and that meant centralising our data on a single platform,” says Gamble.

Once TSB had a system that made it possible to see all the customer data in one place, at the same time, it could use the information to expand the relationship beyond the transactional. And a key way to do this is to help solve a problem.

These could be problems of your making that, if fixed, will make customers happier and your business better. TSB uses data to work out where people repeatedly drop out of loan and mortgage applications, suggesting part of the process is too difficult or badly structured. These are the sort of experiences that put people off becoming a customer before they’ve even started.

Then TSB redesigns the process to make it simpler to complete. It makes customers’ lives easier as they’ll spend less time on a form and they’re less likely to need to call customer service for help.

Most people will never know anything’s changed, of course, but that’s how it should be: effectively invisible.

And with a higher proportion of completed applications the bank gets more business. By using data to spot and solve something that’s bothering customers, TSB simultaneously sorts out a customer problem and improves take up of loans and mortgages.

For businesses with stores and branches, there’s a huge digital opportunity to replicate the personal touch of human interaction: the feeling of recognition and warmth you get when the newsagent not only recognises you, but knows your name and what paper you read.

TSB COO Suresh Viswanathan describes it as “delivering digital experiences that are as personalised and relevant as our in-branch service. There’s no distinction between digital and in-branch – both should deliver the same level of service, and a customer should be known by staff.”

This is about more than using data for practical, measurable outcomes, such as targeted offers based on interactions or communicating via the customer’s preferred platform. It’s about using data to create a human connection with customers, to make them feel like they’re known and understood.

A business like a bank can really get to know its customers, as people tend to stay with the same bank for a long time – there’s a huge amount of data available, potentially over decades. It’s an opportunity to bring some of that corner shop magic to much bigger businesses.

Watch TSB’s full story here.