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Customer Experience

September 27th, 2009

Customer Experience: More Important Than Ever in Tough Times

If customer experience is a viable differentiation strategy in good times, it is doubly so today.

At a time when most firms will naturally gravitate toward a strategy of cutting back, hunkering down and laying off—because that’s what one is expected to do in hard times—this is a wonderful time for those who truly understand the potential of the customer experience to rise to the occasion.

But I see three problems with the application of customer experience as a component of customer strategy:

  1. it is an extremely difficult concept to nail down because, like value, quality, service and relationships, it exists principally in the mind of the customer;
  2. it is poorly understood, as are most of the others, given at best superficial thought by most managers and conceptualized in exceedingly narrow terms;
  3. as has been the case with our recent passion with customer relationships, few managers approach customer experience from the perspective of the customer.

In well over 30 years of surveying thousands of customers on both sides of the Atlantic, I have developed a framework of how customers view their experiences at the hands of businesses. It may uncreatively be labeled the 4P’s of customer experience—not to be confused with a time-worn and now largely seen as inadequate conceptualization of Marketing. My 4P’s represent a progression in how customers view their interactions with businesses and other organizations, based on what I have learned from customers themselves.

Processes

At its most fundamental level, customer experience may be viewed as the result of certain PROCESSES that the firm has in place to deal with its customers. This is the view that most managers bring to discussions of customer experience and the definition that is most often written about. It is essentially a point-of-sale and contact-center view: how quickly do we answer their calls? how long do they have to wait? do we resolve complaints quickly? Essentially, how easy and convenient do we make it for customers to deal with us? This is a very functional, procedural view of customer experience, dealing with what most customers would consider table stakes.

This is also the view that many firms bring to measuring their delivery of customer experience, because these are the most easily measured components of the experience. These represent the backbone of the customer experience. If we fail to deliver on these fundamentals then we can wave goodbye to any hope of creating memorable or meaningful experiences. They are also the elements of the experience that are most vulnerable in the face of cutbacks, because customers will notice immediately when there are fewer employees to serve them, when service is noticeably slower, and when they can’t get through to your help desk.

People

The second stage of our conceptualization of customer experience involves PEOPLE. Most customer-centric organizations will readily acknowledge that a central component of customer experience is the interaction that customers have with the firm’s employees. I can confirm that most memorable (both positive and negative) customer experiences that I have heard about in countless focus groups and depth interviews involved interaction with staff.

Employees are, quite simply, the custodians of the customer experience. This is why the Human Resources department should arguably be the most influential player in a firm’s customer experience strategy. It is also why a company will cut back on its staff in tough times at its peril. Customers will notice and will miss those employees who have been laid off, let alone finding it more difficult to get served. There are internal repercussions as well, as layoffs inevitably trigger employee uncertainty and decreased morale and these get translated into poor service. For the same reasons, this is no time to cut back on training and employee incentives.

Performance

Tough economic times are no time to renege on promises or to leave customers in the lurch, feeling you have let them down—you are going to need them when things start to turn up again and they have long memories. This is why we need to focus on the PERFORMANCE component of the customer experience. The prevailing limited view of the customer experience, focused as it is on customer interaction, fails to acknowledge that the customer’s experience continues long after he or she leave the store. In some industries, the customer is left to his or her own devices in determining how to use the product or service or to get the greatest value from it.

Recognizing that the customer’s experience does not only involve direct interaction with the firm should spark some discussion of how we can enhance the customer’s ongoing enjoyment and perceived value of what we have sold him or her. Access to toll-free customer advice and occasional keep-in-touch calls with suggestions for improving value perception will be doubly appreciated in difficult times when many companies will be abandoning their customers.

Possibilities

Finally, let’s turn to what I consider the greatest potential of the customer experience concept; the view that deals with POSSIBILITIES. Let’s think creatively about the experiences that companies can create, enable and make possible for their customers. The most creative companies do things that their competitors do not do; they “behave” differently. They recognize implicitly that customers are trying to get things done and deliver solutions to help them along the way. I’m thinking of the camera store that organizes classes and field trips to teach its customers to take photographs that get a “You took that?” response from friends or the food distribution company that helps the food service director of a seniors’ home “make dinner interesting” for her residents.

In difficult times, customers are likely to be especially appreciative of initiatives that are surprising and that are genuinely helpful. Companies should be looking for opportunities to impress, empowering their employees to step into a situation to make things easier for a customer. My research confirms that customers are most impressed with the experiences that they were not expecting. These spark conversations and storytelling —”you’ll never believe what ____did for me this week.” Whenever you can leave a customer with “one less thing to worry about”, you have a winner.

Most customers, when facing uncertain economic times, will want to deal with companies they can trust and on which they can rely; those that seem to have their interests genuinely at heart. Experiences must engender those feelings. This makes solid business sense in “normal” times, and is even more important today.

This is no time to skimp on the customer experience. The rush in many firms will be to downsize, to strip costs out of the organization, to hunker down. But, the result of such actions is often to leave the firm vulnerable because it is unable to deliver solid customer experiences at precisely the time when they will have the greatest impact. Now is the time to invest in customer experience, to expand the firm’s view and to look for opportunities to create experiences that customers will remember when good times return.


About the Author

Jim Barnes

Dr. James G. Barnes is a consultant, speaker and author on customer relationship strategy and metrics, and on the creation of value for the customer. Barnes operates Barnes Marketing Associates, Inc. from his base in Canada. His latest book is called: Build Your Customer Strategy (John Wiley & Sons).

International speaker and consultant, Dr. Jim Barnes helps companies become more profitable. How?

* By providing customer insight for genuine, more profitable relationships.

* By using customer insight to maximize your company's investment in CRM.

* By helping your organization better understand how to create genuine value for customers.

* By helping you come to occupy a more meaningful place in the lives of your customers.

"Everything I know about marketing I've learned from customers."


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