At one time, poor customer experiences were commonplace. Major corporations had nothing to fear from a few disgruntled customers. Those days, however, are over. The emergence of social media platforms giving customers a powerful voice — and the rise of e-commerce giants putting customer service above all else — created a new environment. In this landscape, customer experience isn’t just a facet of a brand: It’s the most important differentiator on an otherwise level playing field.

Historically, price and quality reigned supreme as the major differentiators between one company’s offerings and the next. Today, elevated customer expectations are just the price of entry. Customer experience will make your brand stand out, but you have to stand out in a good way. All it took was video of a passenger getting forcibly removed from an overbooked United Airlines flight for the company’s stock value to plummet by $1.4 billion.

Customer experience can crush you or propel your brand to new heights. Take, for example, a woman who called Zappos to return some boots. She’d purchased them for her father, but he’d since passed away. The Zappos employee didn’t just issue a full refund and tell the customer to keep the boots. She also sent flowers to express her condolences.

While you might not have the budget to send gifts to every customer, find ways to go above and beyond.

1. Mapping out the customer journey

It’s difficult to improve the customer experience unless you know how customers are interacting with your brand. By mapping the customer journey, you’ll see what customers experience and spot moments to make that experience even better. Rely on big data to compile information on consumer decisions and preferences.

Take a cue from Netflix and Amazon. Use AI-powered tools, such as recommendation engines, to simultaneously speed up the customer journey and improve the experience. For example, Best Buy makes recommendations based on predictions about what customers are interested in, thanks to search data.

2. Integrating voice technology

Voice search is catching on faster than most realize — ComScore estimates voice will account for 50 percent of searches as early as 2020. “Though IoT devices have always promised data on usage and customer wants and needs, the integration of voice can help businesses better understand the context behind those wants and needs. Voice will improve our understanding of users’ intentions, goals, and desired outcomes,” says Andrey Kudievskiy, founder and CEO of software development company Distillery.

Cater to voice search. You’ll have the data you need to better anticipate customer needs, improving the experience in every interaction. If you make voice search a priority, you’ll be in good company: Tide and Nestle are using voice to drive marketing initiatives.

3. Prioritizing convenience

Amazon Prime’s free two-day shipping gave online buyers a taste of convenience, and it’s become more important than ever. According to Salesforce’s “State of the Connected Customer” report, 69 percent of customers expect an “Amazon-like” shopping experience. To provide this level of convenience without an Amazon-sized budget, it’s critical to rely on automation. When possible, break free from manual processes that prevent you from achieving scale.

“With chatbots able to engage customers seamlessly around the clock, this is poised to completely change the online customer experience game, while saving time and money,” says Patrick Welch, president and CMO of Bigtincan. Chatbots can automate a large portion of customer requests, freeing up employees for more demanding tasks. For example, Vergic’s chatbot uses its natural language processing capabilities to walk customers through standard workflows. It handles transaction-oriented chats, transferring only complex problems to human customer service reps.

Customer experience is an integral part of your brand’s success in the coming years, and we’re surrounded by examples demonstrating how it can make or break a company. When you have a high-quality product at a competitive price and you’re wondering where to focus next, make customer experience your new North Star.

Brad Anderson

Brad Anderson

Editor In Chief at ReadWrite

Brad is the editor overseeing contributed content at ReadWrite.com. He previously worked as an editor at PayPal and Crunchbase. You can reach him at brad at readwrite.com.