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So you have an exquisitely engineered product or an innovative service.

Sorry, but that won’t be enough to sustain growth in today’s economy. From the customer’s point of view, you’re just getting started on meeting their basic expectations.

Brands that differentiate themselves remember that driving purchase is all about creating great experiences for their customers — all-around and all the time. Product innovation by itself won’t give you a lasting lift.

In fact, your great product will probably become commoditized. As Columbia University Professor Bruce Greenwald famously said about competition and business strategy, “In the long run, everything is a toaster.”

Your customer experience is your brand

How customers experience your brand throughout their journey is what lasts. Experiences happen long before and long after customers swipe the card at the register or push the “confirm purchase” button. You need to delight, not discourage, customers at every touchpoint.

That has always been true, but now a fundamental shift is happening. Consumers are more empowered and more vocal than ever, and purchase decisions are happening at light speed. They’re not going to remember a blah brand that doesn’t impress them every step of the way.

Consider how much goes on before the moment of purchase. At different points in time, a customer might read a newspaper ad, search for you online, decide if online or in-store is better for them, figure out your delivery offers, x out all your popups, sort through the junk mail you send them for recycling, open an app, park the car, grab a shopping basket, and navigate the store. That’s all before they start waiting in line to check out.

Each one of these touchpoints can be another tiny weight that drags down the growth of your brand, or it could be the brand differentiator you need when anyone can compete with you on value or style or the convenience of ordering.

Consider how Zappos broke out from the ecommerce fashion pack by recognizing that anxiety over shopping for clothes online was a pain point and innovating on the return policy. More recently, the home try-on program from eyewear retailer Warby Parker is innovating on pain points in the consideration phase.

Find what values you and your customers share

One great way to find those pain points is by setting up a customer co-creation session or workshop with both believers and non-believers. This helps you get to the nitty-gritty of the problem by inviting customers to help you figure out what your brand is doing right and what it’s doing wrong.

LEGO is brilliant at this. Ten million people go to LEGO conventions every year, according to Cecilia Weckstrom, the Global Head of She explains that “shared value leads to much richer, deeper, and longer-lasting relationships with consumers, where consumers get more than just products and companies get more than just money.”

Get the lay of the land

I love learning how customers interact with brands by drawing customer journey maps.

The easiest way is just to take a whiteboard, some markers, and sticky notes and start putting up all the landmarks and milestones that mark what happens before, during, and after customers interact with your brand.You’re looking for blind curves, speed bumps, and dead ends.

What you really want to watch for, though, are the numerous tiny points of friction that add up. Say you want to improve check-out times at the register. By writing down all the little touches your customers have during that process — unloading the basket, the swipe of the loyalty card, juggling the coupons — you find points of friction to smooth over.

Small changes may seem like a waste of time, but the accumulation of marginal improvements creates the lift that can let your product soar above the competition.

Help your customers fall in love with your brand

To differentiate, your brand has to focus relentlessly on every step of their journey. Here are some of the things you can do right now:

  • Use your customers. Listen to them, answer them, co-create with them, shadow them.
  • Use everyone on the team. Cross-functional and diverse teams lead to smarter and better work.
  • Ask what is happening before, during, and after your customer makes a buying decision.
  • Keep it simple — whiteboards, markers, and sticky notes often trump the most advanced digital systems for collaboration.

And my last piece of advice is to just start by doing. Pick something and try it.

You surely know the old line from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu about how “a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” I actually prefer a longer excerpt of that passage. The line before that famous quote reads:

Do the difficult things while they are easy, and do the great things while they are small.

In a world of commoditized products and services, experience design is doing the great things while they are small.

That’s your differentiation gateway. Are you innovating there before your competitors beat you to it?

Peter Sena II is an entrepreneur, angel Investor, and Yale University Venture Mentor who founded Digital Surgeons, a global innovation and design firm. Follow him on Twitter: @Petesena.



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