What Constitutes an Authentic Customer Experience and Which Brands Are Role Models?


By James D. Roumeliotis (with content/survey by Ian Golding)

Customer Loyalty Service Support Care Trust Business Concept

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As a big proponent and practitioner of the total customer experience, I often cringe when I and many others endure displeasure when transacting with established brands. The companies in question happen to possess deep pockets which constantly communicate about how wonderful they are doing business with. In actuality, they fail miserably in delivering on those messages. The blame goes to their frugality and/or complacency along with their dysfunctional business practices.

Building emotions into the brand’s DNA

According to Derrick Daye, partner at The Blake Project, in his intriguing article,Igniting Brand Growth Via Emotional Connectionshe states that research shows that, on average, 50% of purchase decisions are based on emotion and that a ‘Right Space’ – the core emotions a brand seeks, is what its customers should feel across every single interaction/touch point with which they encounter.  He further states that “Marketers that understand this and that harness the power of emotions are today’s true brand builders and are uncovering new opportunities for growth faster than their competitors.” A case in point used is with Apple. The brand utilizes four emotions that drive customers to loyalty. They are delight, surprise, connection and love. This video displays how Apple succeeds at accomplishing this.

Survey says

In January 2015, Ian Golding, a Certified Customer Experience Professional and Customer Experience Specialist based in the U.K., conducted an independent survey of people across the world to find out who their number one Customer Experience brands are and most importantly what makes them top of mind for this purpose. Below he reveals the findings of the research. It is fair to note that much of this material was derived from Ian Golding with his permission.

top-10-brands-customer-experience

The right customer experience is commercially rewarding

The sheer mention of ‘Customer Experience’ and ‘Customer Centricity’, is still often greeted with a rolling of the eyes by those who are more focused on sales targets, operational efficiency and tasks. The irony though is that the former makes the latter much more successful. Also, it’s no coincidence that each of the top 10 brands has recent performance milestones to be proud of:

  • Amazon Q4 14, net sales increased by 15% over Q4 13
  • Apple 39.9% profit per product (3 months to end Dec 14)
  • First Direct Moneywise “Most Trusted” and Which? Best Banking Brand
  • John Lewis profit before tax up 12% in 2014 vs 2013
  • Disney Earnings per share up 27% in year to Dec 2014
  • Air New Zealand Earnings before taxation up 20% in H1 15 vs H1 14
  • Mercedes Revenue increased 12% from 2013 to 2014
  • Starbucks Revenue rise 13% in Q1 FY15
  • BMW 7% increase in vehicle sales in Jan 15 vs Jan 14
  • Boden Shipping 12,500 parcels each day

Is it just a coincidence that the brands you are saying are the best at Customer Experience all seem to be faring well on the commercial front? It appears as though all of the brands that are ‘great’ at Customer Experience share common characteristics

These organizations have common characteristics

I wanted to know what it is that your favorite brands do to make them your #1 at delivering consistently good Customer Experiences. I asked for up to three reasons from each respondent and received 575 comments. Following verbatim analysis, 13 categories were identified, each distinct but interlinked. They were, as follows (with the percentage frequency they appeared):

  • Corporate attitude 15.9
  • They’re easy to do business with 14.9
  • They’re helpful when I have a problem 11.4
  • The attitude of their people 9.4
  • Personalization 8.0
  • The product or service 8.0
  • They’re consistent 7.5
  • The way it makes me feel 6.3
  • The way they treat me 5.1
  • They’re reliable 4.4
  • They do what they promise 4.2
  • They’re quick 2.6
  • The technical knowledge of their people 2.3

We will look in more detail at what we mean by each of these in a moment but to view at any one in isolation would risk limiting what is being achieved by these organisations. This diagram shows how interdependent each area is in aligning with the corporate attitude and ultimately organizational goals and the very purpose for why the business exists:

characteristics-of-customer-experience-brands-by-j-golding

Focusing on these attributes is what moves companies from fighting a rear-guard action to fix issues of their own making to creating a compelling a sustainable brand for the future. It also means that customers are increasingly exposed to better experiences as they go about their daily lives and that’s important because it keeps nudging the bar of expectations higher. This is why the brands that do these things are ones that people consider to be the very best at delivering consistently good Customer Experiences. Digging deeper into each of the 13 areas we can build a picture of how the companies who get it right control the way they do business.

  1. Corporate attitude

It’s another way to describe organizational culture and it underpins everything that happens to or with a customer. More specifically, in the words of those who responded to the research, companies who have the right attitude:

  • Put people before profits and non-human automation;
  • Know they’ll make more money in the long-run with this approach;
  • Test all experiences thoroughly (to eliminate unintended consequences);
  • Listen and demonstrate they understand their customer;
  • Pay serious attention to detail;
  • Empower their staff to makes decisions and act straightaway;
  • Stay true to their values, admit when things go wrong and fix them;
  • Ensure their staff are fully trained and informed;
  • Recruit for attitude and alignment to brand values.

They also said: “…they treat each customer as we would a guest in our home” and “…they balance customer obsession, operational excellence and financial rigor.”  Almost every other category is a sub-category of this one. It shows how important the right culture is.

  1. They’re easy to do business with

It’s obvious to say a company should be easy to do business with and yet that’s not always the case. What respondents meant by “easy” included:

  • There are no barriers in the way for doing what a customer needs to;
  • It’s simple to get information, purchase and use the product;
  • Needs are anticipated and catered for;
  • Customers don’t need to repeat information;
  • They can switch from one channel to another with no impact on progress;
  • Products can be returned or fixed with minimum effort on the part of the customer;
  • They are available when and where customers want; they can be reached without waiting and won’t limit the hours of their support functions to office hours if customers are still using their products and services all day every day;
  • They are proactive in taking responsibility, for example: Finding products at other stores and having them delivered;
  • Customers have no objection to self-service because it has been well thought through;
  • Information is presented in a timely, clear and relevant way.
  1.  Helpful and understanding when I’ve got a question

Being easy to deal with is critical when a customer needs help or simply has a question. On the assumption that good companies do respond (a recent Eptica survey found more than 50% of online inquiries go unanswered), helpful companies are ones who:

  • Listen to understand before acting;
  • Give a customer the feeling that they are trusted and respected;
  • Will provide an answer and additional, relevant help;
  • Provide certainty and manage expectations about what will happen next and at each stage;
  • Empower employees to make decisions;
  • Resolve issues first time and quickly;
  • Have employees who are happy to give their names and direct contact numbers;
  • Pre-empt problems and solve them before customers are aware;
  • Fix customers’ mistakes without blame or making them feel awkward;
  • Follow-up afterwards to check everything was sorted and is still as it should be;
  • are not afraid to apologize when they get it wrong.
  1.  Attitude of the people

Individual employees who are interacting with customers become a proxy for the brand. If they demonstrate the wrong behaviors the damage can be hugely expensive but getting them right does not cost a huge amount of money. Most often a function of the corporate attitude, the most appreciated characteristics are:

  • Being courteous and friendly;
  • A positive, “I’ll sort it” attitude;
  • They are good at listening;
  • It’s obvious they care about, and are proud of, the product/service;
  • They are professional and not pushy;
  • They are helpful and proactive;
  • They are genuine and humble;
  • They smile;
  • Hey are engaging and interested in the customer;
  • They have personality, not a corporate script;
  • They are patient;
  • They show respect for their fellow colleagues.
  1. Personalization

We are all individuals and like to be treated as such. Having “big data” was seen as the answer but as these companies demonstrate, it’s not only more important to have the right data and do the right things with it, but it’s also linked again to corporate attitude. Those who get the personalization right:

  • Understand, anticipate and are proactive;
  • Keep customers informed with relevant information;
  • Shows they listen and act, not just collect feedback;
  • Create a relaxed environment because a customer’s needs fits neatly into what they are offering;
  • Create a feeling of respect, that they care and have “taken the time to know me, to make things easier for me”;
  • Make it feel like dealing with a person where there’s a connection, not just a transaction;
  • Allow their customers to control the degree of personalization in terms of frequency and content;
  • Remain flexible and adaptive to the circumstances, not scripted.
  1. The product or service itself

Making it easy, personal and rewarding will be wasted effort if the core product or service doesn’t live up to expectation. At the end of the day, your business must have something of value to the customer to sell! When it comes to products and services, the #1 Customer Experience brands are those who:

  • The right mix of choice, relevance, quality and innovation;
  • Well designed, so it is easy to get it to do what it’s supposed to;
  • Quality is complemented by relevant innovation, not technical innovation for the sake of it;
  • Obsessive about the detail;
  • Paying as much attention to secondary products, such as food on airlines;
  • Good at turning necessary evils into compelling attributes – Air New Zealand’s legendary on-board safety briefings, for example;
  • Adept at keeping up with, ahead of and shaping basic expectations.
  1. Consistency

As customers we like certainty and predictability. It means that the decisions we make carry less risk because we can confidently trust the outcomes. It also demonstrates stability of, and a shared understanding of, strategy. For our respondents, consistency is about experiences that:

  • Look and feel the same;
  • Can continue easily wherever, whenever and however;
  • Match or build on the positive expectations created last time;
  • Have continuity in not only what happens but how it happens; tone of voice, quality, different locations, store or franchise, people and processes, performance;
  • Provide the same reliable answers to the same questions;
  • Integrate with other services.
  1. The way it makes me feel

Emotions are a function of how good the other two cornerstones of Customer Experience – function and accessibility – are. How they were made to feel, whether intentional or not, is what people remember. Being the personal consequence of most if not all the issues covered here, it is what drives our behavior about whether or not we will do the same next time and tell others to do the same. If people think they are part of something special, connected to a company that lives by like-minded values, they will FEEL special. And as human beings, we appreciate that. Survey respondents cited a number of great examples:

  • “Get on an Air New Zealand flight anywhere in the world it already feels like you’re home”;
  • “The packaging increases the anticipation when opening a new product” (Apple);
  • “Interactions with employees don’t feel like processes out of an operating manual”;
  • “There is (the perception of) a genuine relationship; it’s not just about them selling every time they are in touch”;
  • “They make me feel as if I’m their only customer” (Land Rover).
  1. The way they treat me

At the root of how we feel and therefore behave is often down to how we are treated. Good and great companies have experiences that:

  • Demonstrate respect;
  • Show an empathy with customer needs;
  • Don’t do things like asking a customer to repeat information if handed from one colleague to another;
  • Keep customers posted on feedback they’ve given;
  • Recognize their customers both by staff individually in-store and organizationally;
  • Have a consistency of treatment even when not spending money in-store;
  • Create relevant retail environments so that customers feel they are treated as if they are somewhere special;
  • Develop meaningful loyalty programs that acknowledge past purchases and reward future ones;
  • Are not patronizing in tone.
  1. They’re reliable

Not surprisingly, reliability is cited as a key attribute. Although we simply expect things to work as they did last time or as it was promised, we probably won’t get too excited if that is the case. However, the consequences of it not happening will result in additional time, effort, inconvenience and sometimes cost to the customer; not what a brand would want to be blamed for. There are some markets where the mere hint of a lack of reliability in its truest sense has serious consequences for a brand. More generally, reliable customer experiences are ones that:

  • Give confidence and a level of trust that what we ask for when we buy is what we get – there are no nasty surprises;
  • Understand that they are key to repeat purchases and advocacy. No-one will put his or her own reputation on the line to recommended any brand product or service that is unreliable.
  1. They do what they promise

Again, this is a character trait we appreciate in friends, family and colleagues and it’s no different when dealing with a business. It can be seen as a subset of “the way they treat me” but it is also critical at a strategic level too; the brand is what people say it does and so that has to be consistent with what it’s promising, just as its employees need to keep their own promises to customers too. There’s a real financial benefit here too where unnecessary and costly rework can be avoided. How many enquiries coming into the business are because “You said you’d get someone to call back”, “You said you’d send me a copy of that statement” or “Where’s my fridge, I’ve had to take the whole day off work and there’s still no sign of it.” Customer experiences that do what they promise:

  • Live up to the expectations they set;
  • Have employees that do what they say they will do;
  • Do it all consistently;
  • Fix it quick if they fail;
  • Are good at managing expectations.
  1. Timely

As customers, time (alongside money) is a commodity we trade with. A company who appreciates the finite and precious nature of it will create a distinct advantage. In today’s everything-everywhere-now life it’s not surprising that speed is an issue. Expectations are rising all the time where customers interacting with other brands see what can be done. Timely customer experiences are ones that:

  • Move at the right speed for customers;
  • Show respect by having have good reaction times once a customer has initiated part one of a two-way activity;
  • Manage expectations, so if it’s not “quick” as defined by customers there are also, no disappointing surprises;
  • Are not just focused on speed of delivery but are quick to answer the phone, flexibility to find ways around rules and respond to questions.
  1. People knowledge

Having people who are technically competent with their product knowledge is another character of top brands. Companies that possess employees like this have an invaluable asset who are:

  • Able to translate the concerns and questions;
  • Able to articulate complex issues in simple language;
  • Are not patronizing;
  • are proud that their knowledge can help someone else.

In Closing: Be your Chief Customer Officer

Through my personal research and experience ─ and those of the authors credited above, one arrives at the conclusion that Building and nurturing a brand is what makes an enterprise gather wind under its wings. Common intelligence dictates that the way a customer is dealt with reflects on the integrity of the brand, and the image of the company in the mind of the consumer.

When customers are treated with honesty and delighted by a particular brand experience, they begin to bond emotionally with the brand. They become brand loyalists and advocates – buying the brand more often and recommending it to others. This behavior serves to build the brand’s reputation. This approach is priceless –even though it may take longer to take positive effect.

Stellar customer experience is not only reserved for the big brands. It can exist with businesses of all sizes and stages. It is about a mindset ─ the right attitude and culture within the organization where everyone is customer centric which matters more than solely the bottom line.

As a final point, the leadership of the brand, whether with a title of president, managing director or CEO (C-suite), he or she should be the “chief customer officer.” According to a survey that The Economist Intelligence Unit recently conducted of how global companies manage their customer experience programs, 58% of companies that are much more profitable than their competitors report that the CEO is in charge of customer experience management. Indeed, the commander-in-chief of the company is the one who sets the tone and culture for the organization. If the CEO of a publicly traded company focuses on quarterly profits to satisfy its shareholders’ demands at the expense of being customer centric, everyone else below him or her will do what it takes to fulfill their boss’s expectations and requirements. It is quite a regrettable situation which occurs often with many public corporations.

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