We are all familiar with the frequently quoted cliché: “the customer is king”. As is so often the case with clichés: companies have frequently treated this assertion as nothing more than the mellifluous warblings of the marketing department. But then along came digitisation. And with it, the networked customer is increasingly acquiring influence: each experience with a brand can be commented, assessed, and then spread like wildfire through social networks. Companies that neglect to take customers seriously, and that fail to entertain suitable, interactive relationships with them across all channels, will soon find themselves at the centre of a digital sandstorm. To act in a truly customer-centric manner, companies must be willing to ask some difficult questions of their business models – which quite frequently will require complete restructuring. After all, it takes more than just a wily marketing ploy to bestow truly royal treatment upon customers.
The customer leads; the brand follows
Customers genuinely were royalty in the age of the corner shop: the owner would know the customers dropping in on their errands, would know their preferences, needs and buying habits, and would be able to tailor the stock accordingly. Satisfied customers would continue to buy their groceries from the corner store, and in ideal cases would even spread the word around the neighbourhood. This idealised perception of a business relationship has not changed substantially in the meantime, although the world around us has moved at a dizzying pace. The direct contact between the corner shop owner and the customer has now become an extremely intricate construct of customer experience. This complex impression of all the experiences a prospective customer or consumer acquires in his or her dealings with a brand is increasingly in the spotlight of all entrepreneurial activity.
It is perfectly evident why companies have become more interested in how their potential and existing customers experience their brand: digital networking has brought sweeping changes to decision making and buying patterns among consumers, and brands are now compelled to respond if they wish to survive in the modern business environment. After all, the universal ability to access comprehensive information on products and services and to publicly broadcast one’s own opinions by tablet, PC or smartphone has given individuals a hitherto unknown power and control over a brand: the 3Rs of the ‘social consumer’ – Ratings, Reviews and Recommendations – are the dominant factors in how customers make decisions. Increasingly, consumers are turning away from the brand’s own claims, and are trusting more and more in what their peers have to say, even if they are prone to overlook that an apparently positive overall rating can certainly be deceptive and that anyone disregarding the sources, quality and quantity of ratings may quickly be misled.
User reviews are even more indicative of a brand’s true value. Who needs Which? magazine when anyone who buys a product or uses a service can share his or her experience with the world, unredacted and in real time? Many companies still fail to recognise just how important the authors of these reviews are for a brand. And this although endorsements by satisfied customers and enthusiastic brand advocates today hold greater sway over revenue than a number of other more traditional performance indicators.
This has also brought change to what consumers insist on from companies: nowadays they expect immediately usable ‘on demand’ solutions to all their momentary needs, which they articulate using smart devices that in most cases are mobile. They decide where, when and how a brand may interest or be of use to them, and hence define – from their perspective – the ideal customer experience.
Everything is customer experience
Here, consumers are aware that wherever they go, they leave behind digital footprints. And in return for disclosing their own information they expect that their personal contact with the brand to be as unique as possible and that they receive commensurate satisfaction of all their individual wishes and preferences in the form of specifically tailored products and services across all touchpoints – whether in the form of search requests, the company website, apps, social media channels, the shop round the corner or their dealings with customer service. And the crux of the matter is that each individual encounter with a brand influences customer experience. Individual brand involvement encompasses concrete experience with the provider and its products or services just as much as the emotions that the brand itself transports. But the thin blue line between tailored customer contact and a tedious slew of information overkill is precariously easy to overstep. The marketing agency i‑scoop penned an article on the topic of Customer-centricity and customer experience, in which it illustrated that consumers are not always looking to be blown away by each experience. Like in the corner shops of yore, today’s customers expect to be treated as individuals with an array of needs across a variety of different situations.
It is reasonable to contend, therefore, that across all touchpoints, the fine art of digital brand strategy consists of creating a form of customer experience that takes consumers seriously, accompanies them on their journey towards purchasing, keeps them entertained and avoids getting on their nerves. Companies can achieve this by using intelligent data technology and ‘social listening’ to record the interests and wishes of consumers in their respective contexts, and by providing made-to-measure responses. Google succinctly describes this challenge as a ‘micro-moment’. The realisation that each individual, internally and externally, can help fashion brand experience, leads to a transformation in corporate culture: the consumer’s voice is now reverberating through the marketing and sales departments, and is already echoing down into product development. Companies that give the customers a voice in research and development processes possess the unique opportunity of matching the entire customer experience with what the consumers actually want, instead of merely optimising their products and services. TUMI, the manufacturer of luxury bags, is a shining example of a customer-centric, entrepreneurial approach. From its very inception, the company included its customers in the entire product lifecycle, organising its departments to reflect customer groups. The corporate strategies in place within digital startups like Uber andZappos also point in this direction.
Where does customer experience end and strategy begin?
Although the majority of companies are aware of the significance of convincing customer experience, the realisation that this will require a company-wide, customer-centric strategy is, in many instances, conspicuous in its absence. In most cases the marketing department remains responsible for managing customer experience, and in the meantime they have started investing mind-boggling amounts in suitable technological infrastructure, while nevertheless overlooking the IT managers in their own companies. In order to create a uniform customer experience, it is essential to establish interfaces between the various company levels. Only this way is it possible to consolidate the acquired data and to disseminate information on customer interaction to the various departments within the company as quickly as possible.
There are a few other stumbling blocks within company organisation: who is responsible for real-time interaction with consumers, or for providing positive feedback in response to endorsements and ratings? Who coordinates these important factors of customer experience? Who looks after, and who controls communities and forums if a company lets its customers in?
A holistic, customer-centric strategy does not mean that marketing and sales should focus on the most important customers; rather, it involves streamlining all processes and business functions to reflect the customer perspective. Even in its financial objectives, a customer-centric company will concentrate on optimising the value generated with each individual customer. If not before, at least now it becomes clear that the topic of customer experience is strategic, not operative, and that everyone within the company must define this issue as a cross-departmental priority in order to achieve long-term success.
Optimising customer experience along the lines of a customer-centric corporate strategy will require internal and external changes. Firstly, each individual interaction between the brand and the consumer must be scrutinised to ensure a smooth customer experience across all touchpoints. Secondly, the transformative strategy will also affect the organisation’s structure. It is imperative to dismantle departmental silos and to tear down barriers between individual divisions. It is equally necessary to critically question how IT is currently used within the company.
Once the foundation has been built, the strategic roadmap for ideal customer experience proceeds by addressing what customers are looking for in their dealings with the brand. How can the brand appeal to the hearts, minds and senses – and which corporate goals does this involve? All the participating architects of customer experience must agree on which information concerning the company’s products and services the consumers are likely to share, and on who will respond – and how and to what – across the various lifecycles. After all, the 3Rs mentioned at the start ensure that positive brand experience lasts longer than the actual purchase transaction, so companies should actively promote and reward positive ratings and comments. Companies are in a position to continuously optimise their customer experience strategy, provided they make clever use of customer data and establish suitable loyalty programmes. As in any good relationship, the customer and the brand will only share valuable information once they have built a spirit of mutual trust. The security afforded to personal information and the clarity of agreements are among the weightier factors on which this trust depends.
However abstract it may seem, these ideas must not be left to chance, and require careful strategic planning. Companies must perceive customer experience as a promise they make to consumers, one that is implemented in a measurable way, involving clear responsibilities and targets. Macala Wright proposes ‘Return on Experience’ as a concrete performance indicator for successful customer experience. Studies have shown that consumers are willing to pay substantially more for an equivalent product or service if they believe it will help them acquire a superior brand experience. Therefore, successful customer experience will, directly and indirectly, impact positively on ROI and will help create an unusually loyal customer base in our fleeting times. For this reason, companies should do whatever they can in the best possible way to make customers kings of their brands.
Ingredients for a successful customer experience strategy
- Review customer experience at each possible touchpoint and make it uniform
- Create the necessary organisational environment to act in a spirit of customer-centricity
- Interact intelligently with consumers and try to understand them
- Give them the brand experience they want