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The ABC$ of Customer Experience

AcxiomFebruary 12, 2016

Recently a special online offer prompted a trip to the local home improvement store. Once there, I walked around, and could neither find information on the product, nor the product itself, nor anyone to help me. I made my way to customer service and was asked to wait. After playing a few levels of Angry Birds I gave up. 30 minutes later I had completed my purchase at a competing store just down the street.

The customer is king, but of course what brands do (or don’t do) still greatly impact their purchase patterns or decisions. As I was writing this post, I asked some friends about their experiences. Here are some responses:

  • “I have premium status with the hotel but am really tired of timeshare and vacation sales calls to my home number every other day. I have told them I am not interested and it works for a couple of weeks and then it starts again.”
  • “Yes, something may be sold online only, but why can’t I return it to a store? Are they not the same company?”
  • “ I’ve owned the same brand of car for 15 years. The cars are great and dealer service is fantastic.”
  • “I have status with airline I use for work travel, but for family trips I fly with another airline. I have to pay for checked luggage but its worth it because the inflight entertainment keeps kids happy and its worth it.”
  • “I love the fact that they send exchanges before receiving the item I am sending back.”

As you can see, even in this small subset, you can see the difference in experiences and interactions. Overall the businesses are either meeting the needs of the customer, or not. Another really interesting point was that no one reached out to the company to either complain or compliment on the service – the primary feedback was shown by actions. That prompted me to think on drivers, impact, solution and implementation imperatives that together make for a delightful and results oriented Customer Experience strategy:

1. Aware and Connected Customers

Customer expectations are set by a much larger number of factors than before. The expectations are not just based on how one business in an industry is compared to another; their expectations are being set by other industries, other businesses and increasingly by other consumers. Simply looking at the key competitors as the benchmark is not sufficient. While needed and of critical importance, it’s not enough. Research indicates that it can take almost a dozen positive experiences to make up for one negative one. On top of that its not just a customer’s own negative experiences that can have an impact. Jeff Bezos once stated “If you make customers unhappy in the physical world, they might each tell six friends. If you make customers unhappy on the Internet, they can each tell 6,000 friends.”

2. Better Experience Wins

Not meeting expectations can be a heavy burden. Winning back defecting customers or acquiring new customers whose opinions may be negatively impacted by stories of others’ experiences is made exponentially more difficult. Similarly, a better experience can do the exact opposite. It can increase loyalty, increase share of wallet and make it easier to acquire new customers. This is especially important in industries where it is easier for customers to switch. Better total experience is grounded in multiple factors including superior product quality, better usability, solid post sales service, purchase advise, returns and exchanges etc. Ideally it is a combination of these and more. In many cases products, offers, function and features can be copied, programs can be mimicked and even aspects of customer experience can be copied. The key is not just what a business does but how well it does it. How well does it know its customers and their needs, as well as its own processes to create an optimized approach. Which takes us to how well we customize and personalize the experience. At a recent Customer Experience Forum, Forrester VP and Research Director Harley Manning shared results indicating that those businesses ranking high in customer experience enjoyed significantly higher revenue growth – as much as 30% higher – than those lagging in customer experience.

3. Customization 

Effective customer experience requires a high degree of customization. The increase in variety of touchpoints with customers creates increased complexity for the entire enterprise ecosystem. To be successful, customized customer experience must be at the core of the enterprise. This is important because customers’ brand preferences are based on the complete experience with the brand and not from just the messaging from the brand or brand image. The experience has to be holistic and consistent. As we think of omnichannel interactions, immediately a checklist appears in mind; desktop, mobile, social, online audio, online video, apps, offline advertising, direct mail, and how we are engaging with a our customers in each.  But that is not all; we have to look at other points of interaction such as in-store shopping, returns, exchanges, payments, layaways, gifts, and gift exchange to name some areas. Each point and mode of interaction is a part of how a brand influences and hopefully enhances each customer’s overall experience with the brand. The consistency should be present in each touchpoint itself, but also across all touchpoints. This can help in delivering appropriate experience to all customers in all interactions throughout the customer relationship.

4. Data-Driven Decisions

There is a wealth of data at our fingertips, and more data to supplement what we may not know. Analysis should be focused to understand two key points. First, where are the biggest gaps and issues in the customer experience for customers? There are multiple approaches to determine this. Simplest could be transaction data, web browsing behavior, and customer service calls data. In addition surveys, secret shopper programs, and employee feedback can be crucial in painting a more complete picture. Second, which customers are different? What are their preferences and behaviors? How are these preferences similar or different among different segments? These insights can develop a personalized approach for each customer segment, and tuned to individuals based on their own history. Data is great, but it has to be paired with expert analysis to make it come alive and really actionable.

5. Enterprise-Wide Executive Focus

Executive leadership should ensure efforts are aligned and not in silos of marketing, operations, billing, service etc. Within the organization, they must assign high importance to understand customers’ expectations, and compare that to actual experience. Customer Experience is strategic and measured. It has to keep in mind not just where a business is today, but where it intends to go, and how it will measure its performance for all relevant touch points. To be successful there must be alignment and shared objectives across all teams. These teams are not always internal, and could be partners, vendors, and service providers. Aside from executive led and being an enterprise wide effort, employees must be empowered to help make customer experience delightful. In the end the enterprise can have the programs, tools and policies in place for an end-to-end experience, but empowered and engaged employees are critical to make sure that it all comes together nicely in practice. Customer Experience is not a “one and done” project. It is a core competency, which has to continually assess at what we are hearing and seeing from our customers, and industry at large. Failure to provide a unique brand experience makes any company an also-ran with the rest of its competitors and risks losing customers to rivals since they may be seen as easily replaceable. On the other hand establishing a brand experience as a unique advantage can have significant gains.

I started this post with a disappointing customer experience; I will finish it off with an example of an exceptional one. I purchased a shirt from a well-known British shirt maker; but it just did not fit right. I called for an exchange and in the conversation noted that I had intended to wear the shirt at an event that weekend. The customer service agent told me she was going to check one more thing as she processed the exchange, came back a few minutes later noting that they had the shirt in their Chicago store, she had just spoken to the manager and they will hold it for me for pick up, or if I want they can get a courier to deliver it to my office. No wonder that in five years since my first purchase almost all my dress shirts are from this single company. The quality has always been fantastic; the experience just won me over. That’s the power of a delightful experience.