The phrase “positive customer experience” has become a mantra for companies large and small in their never-ending efforts to attract and retain business. The reason is obvious: a positive customer experience is a marketplace differential, the sine qua non for any company seeking to distinguish itself from competitors.
A Google search of the phrase reveals an endless number of companies professing to be committed to creating a positive customer experience. In reality, many of them fall short of that goal. Assuming that companies have developed strategies for retaining customers and garnering loyalty, what could be missing? Maybe the answer is that their research, no matter how thorough, has neither adequately nor accurately explored the hoped-for goal involving understanding, anticipating and acting on the customer’s emotions, all of which are integral to forming valued relationships.
Defining the Positive Experience
When talking about customer experience, it’s important to distinguish between positive experience and customer service. Customer service has more to do with inquiries or complaints, response time and customer satisfaction. For interested companies, these can be easily quantified through readily accepted metrics for charting and analysis. However, such databases generally do not attempt to analyze intangibles, such as the emotional responses of customers in dealing with the company or other organization.
On the other hand, a positive customer experience goes far beyond the completion of a sale to a satisfied customer. It is more about the customer’s desire to purchase additional products or services, not solely because they are needed, but because of the nature of the interaction that led to the initial sale. Here is where reliability, professionalism, sincere interest in the customer, competence, trust and ease of doing business produce reactions and outcomes usually associated with a positive experience.
Another distinction between simple satisfaction and positive experience is reflected in the customer’s attitude toward price. A customer who tends to make a decision based on price may not return for a future purchase if a lower price is found elsewhere, whereas price may not be the most important consideration for a customer who has had a positive experience. In this situation, the customer looks at the bigger picture including the manner in which the company and its representatives conduct business.
Improving Customer Experience From the Top Down
Like many other corporate initiatives, momentum for creating a positive customer experience needs to come from the top. That requires senior leaders to have a mindset and commitment to fostering the type of environment customers really want. It means knowing the value and importance of developing rapport, trust, care and concern. It requires understanding needs and tapping into “best practice” communication styles and preferences, all of which represent the unspoken motives for doing business with one supplier as opposed to another.
Time and attention to this area is where many executives fall short. In fact, an article on the business Web site BNET reported on a Forrester Research survey, which concluded that “most [customer service] executives do not follow a disciplined approach to customer experience management.” Without it, customer experience management (CEM) cannot bridge the learning gap that creates positive experiences based on understanding emotional responses.
Some of the ways to improve customer experience are obvious, such as client surveys, thank-you notes or value-added services. Even more important is an orientation and ability to say “yes” rather than “no” to customer requests and inquiries. Furthermore, take the time to scrutinize the corporate culture to determine if the skills and knowledge required for greater customer insight are being practiced at all levels. If they are not, implement training that includes role-playing and other forms of practice to improve the customer experience.
What the Experts Say
Leigh Duncan-Durst, founder of Live Path, a customer experience consultancy, writes that CEM “represents the discipline, methodology and/or process used to comprehensively manage a customer’s cross channel exposure, interaction and transaction with a company, product, brand or service.”
A true CEM practitioner focuses on quality and effectiveness of customer dialogue as opposed to a customer relationship manager, whose primary tool is software data rather than human interaction, according to Duncan-Durst. All five areas are equally indispensable for developing a comprehensive positive customer experience strategy, she says.
But what of the associates who must execute this strategy? It is not enough for a company to express its dedication to the principles of CEM and expect associates to buyin. Employees require the right upper management mindset followed by empowerment to implement corporate policies and behaviors. They need the time, training and experience in order to create conditions to form an emotional connection with the customer. In turn, that serves as the basis for meeting and exceeding customer expectations.
“You have to develop a practice built on relationships and trust,” said Barbara Kaufman, president of ROI Consulting Group Inc. Kaufman’s clients are nonprofit executives who have different types of constituencies than their for-profit business counterparts, but she says the principles of positive experience are the same.
Fortunately, more companies appear to be seeing the value of incorporating positive customer experience in their strategy, according to other surveys. “Despite the economic climate, some firms will spend whatever it takes to deliver a high-quality experience while others will cut customer experience spending by smaller amounts than other areas of the budget.” (Source: Forrester Research Inc.).
A study by Strativity, a CEM consultant group, also stresses the need for more emphasis on customer experience. “In contrast to the popular perception that consumers focus on price only, our study demonstrates that consumers are paying attention to customer experience they receive and are willing to reward exceptional experiences with larger purchases, longer relationships and premium price,” said Lior Arussy, Strativity president, in an August 2009 news release.
Beyond Lip Service
Yet, the concept of the positive customer experience still seems to get little more than lip service from the very companies that aspire to achieve it. It’s a surprising problem given all of the media attention to this subject. Perhaps it is time for companies to heed the warnings and pay closer attention to customer interactivity. It will take an investment to formulate a strategy, but the results justify the effort.
Whether it’s a sales clerk in a store or a high-priced service provider, each has the responsibility to make customers feel that no efforts have been spared. Today, consumers expect and demand more from vendors, suppliers and retailers. That’s why a positive customer experience, which takes advantage of the concept “the little difference makes all the difference,” is not an option.
Watch this animated video to learn 3 ways for improving customer experience: