COMMENT:

We live in a world of abundance - abundant food, abundant entertainment, abundant choice.

What does that mean for business when consumers are overwhelmed with "product" and "content"?

When everyone's ice-cream is delicious free-range and organic, everyone's beer is a hop-filled artisan brew?

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When every TV-streaming service is brimming with more brooding drama and quirky off-beat comedy than you can possibly consume?

When every news site has every story hosed down? And every music site has all the songs?

When you look at the companies that dominate the global consumer landscape the answer is clear.

Customer experience wins every time. Make it easy, save me time, tell me what I want to consume before I even realise I want to consume it.

This week digital agency Track, produced The Customer Experience Index, to compare the performance of Kiwi companies in creating loyalty and delivering customer service.

The research pulled together insights from more than 1000 interactions with organisations in different industries.

The results - unfortunately with brand names withheld – showed that banking is ahead of the game.

Airlines rate well, as do online entertainment streaming sites and grocery retailers.

Telcos and broadband providers struggle - although though the report authors note that they tend to get a tough time because there are numerous technological issues involved that are often outside of their control.

That's interesting, given the big moves Spark is making to address that issue.

Over the past month I've spent time at Spark, observing as it has made the transition to a new customer-focused work environment - known in software development circles as Agile working.

The move recognises that the company is no longer selling products that are materially different to its competitors. It is all about putting customer experience to the forefront of everything they do.

The "Agile" focus on constant, incremental, customer-centric improvements is something that software companies are very good at.

Apple regularly updates your phone software, Spotify suggests a new band it knows you are going to like, Facebook reminds you it is your mum's birthday.

This is what the experts call a transformational experience. It goes beyond simply meeting your needs and adds value in a way that makes the product indispensable.

The idea of the "experience economy" is not new.

It was coined in 1998 by two American authors - Joseph Pine and James Gilmore - who argued that the experience economy was the next stage after the agrarian economy, the industrial economy and the service economy.

The idea anticipated the transformation that the internet would bring to the business world but like a lot of good ideas in the 1990s it got ahead of the technology.

Twenty years later, though, that technology is delivering. We see it in the success of the tech giants that now dominate the US stock exchange - the so called FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google).

One of the basic principles of the experience economy is that: "the experience is the marketing".

In other words, if your website or app sucks, all the marketing in the world won't help.

If your website or app is a joy to use then you probably don't need to spend on marketing at all.

When did you last see an advert for Google or Uber? People use these apps because the experience is so transformative and adds so much value to their lives that they can't live without them.

That's great for consumers but problematic for local companies because it is very hard to compete with the technological resources of the global giants.

That's why it's reassuring to see Spark pushing ahead with the company-wide transformation to Agile working.

The banks are already well advanced at seeing themselves as tech businesses. They might not admit it publically, but privately they know they all offer the same products.

We think of the local Aussie banks as Goliaths but if open-source banking comes to pass they could well become the Davids.

It's not hard to imagine Google or Facebook (or some new silicon valley start-up) moving in to undercut them with a banking app so perfectly simple that the whole world adopts it.

At that point the mainstream banks would find themselves cornered and stuck as commodity players - price takers not price setters.

That would represent a seismic shake-up of the business world. It's one thing for a tech company to reinvent the way we catch a taxi. Banking goes to the very core of society.

The Customer Experience Index authors suggest 2018 may even be "the calm before the storm".

They note that despite little change in experience approval ratings in 2018 - customer expectations are rising - particularly in regards to the way their data is collected and used.

"As the social and regulatory changes set in motion in 2018 ripple out, they will become less tolerant, more aware of their rights and even more empowered," the report says.

The best-performing brands are those that can stay ahead of the curve.

They are the brands that have "bucked the trend by improving customer's perception of their experience".

If the banks are ahead of the curve on this it's because they have done the research. They know what is coming.

It could be a hell of a storm.