Jennifer Kirkby relays the discussions and experiences of top brands who are looking to tackle the issue of creating consistent customer experiences.
Pity the poor operational manager, tasked with creating a consistent customer experience. For on their shoulders lies tomorrow's profit and next year's sustainability; yet, they get little support. All too frequently they find themselves trapped between senior managers unseasoned in the business dynamics of customer experience, and customer-facing employees who know the value of competing brands better than their own!
Just how is the 'middle man' to prove the new business logic to 'seniors', whilst achieving it with staff? Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?
There are three elements, or, perhaps more accurately, ‘graces’ , to consider when creating a consistent customer experience:
- Cultural and brand consistency - across multi channels, media and different employees
- Emotional consistency - across the complete customer journey covering multi-channels
- Lifetime conversational consistency - using the channels and media of the customer’s choice
At the recent Fit For The Future event, hosted by Grass Roots and attended by customer experience managers from a number of well-known consumer brands, it was agreed that cultural consistency was the biggest current burden. For some, consistency was needed across retail outlets and hotels, many belonging to other people, e.g. franchisees and dealers. For others, the issue was across multi-channels, web, telephone, and store.
However, it soon became clear from discussions that the biggest issue was across ‘people’ – employees and stakeholders. Even in a call centre or retail outlet in a single location, cultural consistency and the relevant experience, was a concern – the far flung locations just added the extra complication of creating a ‘local flavour’.
The burden would not be so heavy for operational managers if top management really understood the business case for brand and cultural consistency. One suggested remedy, to focus minds a little more, was the use of 'thought experiments' based on what customers would do if the brand no longer existed - the ultimate unsustainability!
The conclusion slowly emerging is that leadership style and organisational structures play a large part in cultural context, and thus dictate the type of business case needed to convince senior managers. For instance:
- Strong brand value leadership – Virgin, for example, often creates a cultural atmosphere where like minded recruits can be left to ‘live the brand’. But, how is this scaled across channels as the business grew?
- Strong profit-led leadership - often brought in to save an organisation, e.g. Sir Stuart Rose at M&S, this necessarily focuses on operational efficiency with command and control methods. So, how do you convince such managers of the benefits of the ‘more graceful side’ of service and experience?
- Amalgamated organisations such as hotel chains, or large FMCG companies, built from mergers and acquisitions, are often left without any unifying, legacy culture or even brand values. These may never emerge if not designed specifically and with a strong case for the business lost through poor ‘emotional’ experiences and staff engagement.
- Networks of proprietor owned outlet across different locations , e.g. automotive dealers, need to turn information into shared knowledge and collaborate to create a unified outlook for mutual benefit: but again how is that case made?
Key issues raised by organisations about creating a ‘consistent customer experience’ reflect the aforementioned 'middle manager' sandwich effect:
- How do you balance cultural and operational (process/customer journey) consistency?
- How do you created cultural consistency as an imperative for the board?
However, other problems revolved around the specifics of implementation techniques:
- How do you ensure you have a complete customer journey map across all channels, and from the customer’s preference and viewpoint?
- How do you manage customer feedback from all the channels and turn it into real cultural knowledge?
- What is the place and power of storytelling in building cultural consistency?
- How do you map emotional experiences (the key to the customer asset) against the customer’s journey?
Solutions put forward to address these issues centre on ways to engage all staff in delivering a good customer experience - not just front line staff.
From a strategic or top level view, solutions that have been suggested include:
- Promoting specific, differentiating, brand values and how they could be turned into the customer proposition and supporting culture – described as ‘peeling the brand onion’.
- Linking senior staff directly back to customers with ‘back to the shopfloor’ methods.
- Making more use of customer journeys mapping and customer feedback at different stages of the journey in order to build the benefit and risk profile for good and poor experiences.
From an operational view, solutions that brands suggest have worked include:
- Getting staff to 'talk not tick' in the management of KPIs.
- Creating good customer experience stories for circulation, to demonstrate what was required and then leaving staff to ‘live the brand’ rather than micro-manage processes.
- Linking all employees to customer feedback and knowledge, so they could take action in their own roles, e.g. creating a customer knowledge showcase.
- Engaging staff by ensuring everyone knew their role in creating the customer experience and how that affected bottom line results.
- Having brand values as recruitment criteria.
There was little doubt amongst participants of the Fit for the Future event that both empirical evidence and research demonstrated time and time again the value to a business of a consistent customer experience. However, the challenge remains to balance the senior manager egg, with the employee chicken When that is done, a consistent customer experience could indeed be cracked.
Jennifer A Kirkby is director of Mutual Marketing. She recently facilitated and led the Fit for the Future event with Ian Luxford of Grass Roots.