Customer experience, like 'engagement' or 'digital', has become an overused term - as a result, it has lost all meaning, says Digitas' Valeria Corna.

That’s not to say it isn’t important; it has rightly become a boardroom agenda point. Yet, while everybody’s talking about ‘CX’, and it’s near-relation, ‘brand experience’, there is a risk of failing to fully grasp what the terminology really means.

Brands need help to define their ‘experience’ ambitions, but also enable the necessary organisational changes that can bring this to life.

Digitas developed a model for customer experience looking at nine different dimensions, and how they drive satisfaction, advocacy and commercial outcomes. Developing a full understanding of the connected experience is especially important in light of Digitas’ recent research which showed that eight out of ten UK customers believe brands are not making meaningful connections with them, despite the number of channels that are available. This shows the need for a more nuanced experience model.

Digitas’ research looked at the state of the connected experience in the hotel industry, conducting a survey with 785 customers in the UK. The research focused on ten major hospitality brands – Airbnb, Belmond, Citizen M, Four Seasons, Hilton, Holiday Inn, Ibis, Marriott, Premier Inn, and Travelodge.

To date, the experience conversation has largely focused on removing friction - on making it easy for customers - but that’s just one, admittedly important, dimension among nine which affect the overall experience. Of course, category dynamics differ considerably between sectors.

Of the nine dimensions making up the connected experience, we found that ‘coherence’ is the biggest driver of satisfaction in the hotel category. But it’s also the one brands are doing least well on. Coherence is the ability of a brand to translate the brand promise into everything it does, but it’s also about managing expectations. According to the survey, luxury accommodation brand Belmond is achieving this especially well, with a consistency across the majority of touchpoints matching the desirability of the brand promise.

The second biggest driver of satisfaction is ‘emotion’, and being able to generate positive feelings at the right moments across the journey. Enabling and empowering employees to ‘wow’ their customers is the first step in achieving this, but we cannot forget the importance of planning for emotional responses in our digital properties, be these app on-boarding or 404 error pages.

And what about the disruptors? We expected Airbnb - as part tech brand, part hospitality disruptor - to perform really well across all dimensions of our experience model. Indeed, Airbnb emerged as the most distinctive, meaning that customers easily recognised every interaction as being delivered by the brand.

However, that’s not the whole story. When it came to the actual guest experience, Airbnb was the worst performer. Handing over control of the experience to the host carries the danger of being unable to deliver to the customer what was promised. The brand then risks losing out in terms of the experience dimensions of ease, usefulness and empathy. The best app and UX in the world are not enough when you can only influence, but not ultimately control, your guest stay.

Another factor could explain the underwhelming performance of Airbnb: Hotels seem to be adapting really well to the changes Airbnb has brought to the industry. Let’s take experiences as an example. Airbnb has launched an experiences offering to extend its guest journey beyond the stay. Hotels have not stood still. Both Belmond and Citizen M for instance now give their guests an opportunity to enrich their stay with a relevant experience offering, too.

So, should hotels keep adapting to what Airbnb is doing? Yes and no. Using our research we were also able to analyse which stages of the customer journey had the most impact on overall satisfaction. We found that in-room experience was the most important. This is where customers are demanding focus. And it speaks to hotels’ - rather than Airbnb’s - core competences and assets.

In conclusion, there are three actions hotels can take to provide a truly connected experience.

First, remember that it’s vital to translate the brand promise into the customer experience. Make it live in each human interaction, but also in the booking forms, check-in kiosks, reward programmes, or in-room Alexa devices.

Second, focus on becoming a business that has an enormous capacity to make people feel good. This can only be obtained by connecting the customer experience to the employee experience and by empowering everyone in the business – from customer facing staff to our mobile app developers to wow our customers every step of the way.

Third, hotels should keep adapting quickly to the changes disruptors are bringing to the industry but without losing sight of their core assets. These can come in the form of rooms, but let’s not forget the power of trust and relationships built over time: the human element; the smile, the helpful voice at the end of the phone. These still provide the real experience advantage in the world of hospitality.