By Jennifer Kirkby, Business Analyst & Consulting Editor
Ask a consultant how to improve your ‘customer experience’ and words of wisdom will flow. Ask them what customers want and the answer may be less forthcoming. We all talk endlessly about providing customer value, but what exactly is that? What is the requirements benchmark against which consumers measure you?
Whatever that benchmark is, it is obvious from falls in satisfaction levels worldwide and the growth in official watchdogs, that en masse we are doing a poor job of meeting it; despite the huge interest in capturing the ‘voice of the customer’. And customers are becoming annoyed at our shortcoming: their backlash is evidenced by the growth in blogs complaining about service, proliferation of anti-business films, and increasing methods to bar spam and junk mail from entering homes.
So, lets pause from the frantic ‘do it yesterday’ rush of solving our internal problems of brand alignment, channel management and sales targets and really listen to our customers; look at value from their point of view; understand what they are benchmarking us on. For, in Peter Druker’s words, “our customers are the only profit centre we have.”
The customer’s benchmark
When they make a purchase decision, consciously or subconsciously, consumers weigh up seven vital factors: this is their benchmark. It does not matter if the purchase is for personal or business use, these factors are universal. Only the price-cutting dogma of a procurement department warps the evaluation. Another facet of the benchmark is the movement of the factors from the rational – ‘does this product do what I want?’ – to the emotional – ‘does this company know me and make me feel involved?’ Whilst the rational factors have to be met, it is the emotional factors and context of execution that make the biggest difference to future purchase decisions and customer commitment. Therefore, attention to even the smallest detail of customer interaction is important.
1. Improve returns
Customers want to improve the quality of their lives and businesses; they want the best return for their investment. Organisations look to improve their income, profits and assets; individuals, their health, wealth and happiness. We, their suppliers, should tune in to customers’ real goals and dreams and help achieve them. Increasingly today, this means providing ‘feel good experiences’, ‘transform my life skills’, and ‘show I care social responsibility’, rather than just material goods. If a customer buys a kitchen the real goal may be tastier food – so offer customers cookery classes, as a US kitchen company does. An incentive of a massage at a health farm will be more welcome stress-busting experience rather than a box of ‘designer soaps’ to keep clean. In the business-to-business world, the role of a key account manager is to understand how the supplier’s products or services support the client’s targets.
The real art of helping customers achieve goals, is to demonstrate to them what you are doing, that you really do ‘know them’. Examples:-
The ‘my account’ facility of ebay and Amazon;
Retailers who offer personal shopping services for customers with records of requirements and purchases that they work on together;
Travel companies who hold ‘wish-books’ of places customers want to visit, often based on informative talks, and then help them get the best from a visit with personal destination advice;
Other ideas might include energy companies who give statements of how customers are helping protect the environment with energy conservation; lifelong learning plans from educational establishments; advanced driving or off-road driving courses from motor manufacturers.
2. Solve my problems
Consumers seek support and service. Life is rushed. There isn’t time for everything, especially mundane tasks and those that require expert skills – creating a garden, updating a computer. Customers want solutions to problems, not just products, and hate companies who waste their time (e.g. call centre queues), make things tedious (e.g. detailed small print instructions) or demand skills they don’t have (e.g. setting up broadband). Just like business, consumers want to outsource their non-core competencies, and conserve precious time for the things they want to do.
So, what problems do your customers have? How can you help solve them? Think through the ways consumers use your product and service and the difficulties they may have with it. If you sell mortgages, what will you do if your customer is made redundant for a short time? A pharmaceuticals company selling hormone replacement therapy in Africa found that their customers felt lonely and isolated, so started communities for them to discuss issues with each other. A travel company offers a pet hotel service for customers. A wonderful example of a customer solution was instigated by the lingerie company Figleaf.com, who had a ‘blame it on us’ service, especially for male customers who had forgotten an important anniversary – as many men do. They sent out a belatedly ordered gift together with a full apology for the delay in delivery. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes, find out what is going on in their lives, talk with them.
3. Reduce complexity
Choice is one of the watch words of our age, but choice has become a double-edged sword. As supplier switching costs have declined, e.g. gas and electricity, the complexity of choosing has increased. And who is there to help? Company communications create a cacophony of noise that even sees advertisements invading public toilets: whilst facing an array of 40 styles of jeans, 24 flavours of jam and 50 models of mobile phone is just dispiriting. Consumers are desperate for trusted sources of personal advice and information to help them, and voraciously read reviews, recommendations and suggestions from experts and fellow consumers alike.
As companies, how do we reduce the mass media melee and give customers the useful knowledge they ‘Google’ each day online. One way is the current development of an EPOS barcode system that relays product details and usage information to the customer’s mobile phone. At the other extreme is a supported customer community. For example, travel company Expedia have bought online travel community Tripadvisor as a customer service. Over the years Tripadvisor has collected an enormous range of first hand customer reviews of hotels, and now has a valuable source of information
Other examples of more relevant and personal advice include regularly updated house price guides issued by banks; best pub guides in your current location downloaded to your mobile phone; and detailed menu guides in restaurants showing the ingredients of different dishes. Ultimately customers want less emasculating communication and need much more empowering information.
In part two of this feature we will look at link-up communities, creating convenience and corporate responsibility.