Customer loyalty has become something of an oxymoron. Winning and retaining a customer is getting harder, as e-commerce and global competition have empowered consumers with more choices and the ability to easily transfer their business from one company to a competitor.

The whole basis of customer relationships has also changed. Customers are better connected than ever before – to sources of information and to each other, sharing knowledge and opinions on social networks. They are well informed about a company’s products and services and have clear expectations for the service they should receive, the slightest misstep can break a valuable customer relationship for life.

Today, most organizations recognize the value of collecting and using customer-related data to answer the age-old questions of “who are our customers?” and “what do they want?” Many companies are seeking to employ “big data” – the latest buzz word in marketing circles – to better understand their customers.

However, knowing that Jane Doe is a married, working mother with two children who prefers shopping online is no longer enough to win and keep her business. The availability and broad adoption of technologies to capture and analyze customer data is commoditizing such insight.

To stay competitive – or simply survive – companies need to understand and adapt to changing customer expectations. They need to answer the same questions that marketing executives have tackled for decades, but with a new level of precision and real-time speed.

And they need to go further than that. It’s no longer just how much companies know about their customers, but what they do with that insight that will differentiate them from the competition.

Consider the telecommunications industry, where customer churn is a big problem. Unhappy customers often respond to poor service by switching carriers. But what if a mobile service provider had a more complete view of its customers – not just when and where they’re calling and how many minutes they use – but also why they called the service center last month and what they’re saying publicly about the company on Twitter? What if the provider could use this deeper level of insight to anticipate a customer’s defection, and then take action, say by offering a special promotion at just the right time over the optimal channel to keep (and even grow) the customer’s business?

It may sound like a marketer’s utopia, but recent advances in analytics technology is making this possible today.

Real-time predictive analytics enable companies to analyze the growing volumes of customer information available to them, from basic transactional data to survey data that provide insights into how customers think and feel about their products. Combined with business rules based on knowledge of what offers and actions have proven successful with other customers in a similar situation, the analytics can provide recommended actions for that customer across a variety of channels.

For instance, using such capabilities, the mobile service provider’s analysis of customer John might reveal that he’s at risk for cancelling his service due to dropped calls. The analytics might then recommend offering John a discount on upgrading to 4G service, and communicating the offer with a personalized email, a proactive chat session the next time he logs into his account online, and through a service agent the next time he calls into the service center.

In the same way, the technology can help retail banks, insurance companies and other service industries do a better job of personalizing interactions and making offers to their customers that are compelling and relevant given the latest, up-to-the-minute circumstances.

As the volume of available data continues to grow exponentially, real-time predictive analytics is rapidly becoming an essential solution for marketers to convert new insight into smarter actions on behalf of their customers. The companies that do this successfully will improve service, increase satisfaction, and keep their customers coming back – for life.

Paul Papas is the Smarter Commerce Global Leader for IBM Global Business Services.http://www-935.ibm.com/services/us/gbs/smartercommerce/