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To make sure your customers are centre-stage, first you have to feel their pain

The importance of a positive customer experience seems so blindingly obvious you wonder why there is so much current chatter about customer journeys, customer experience design and the whole customer-centric package.

Just put the customer at the centre of everything you do and voila!

Of course it isn’t as easy as that.

The shadow of Steve Jobs (and his famous quote about product design) hangs over all marketers. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want.” However, people certainly do know when a company “gets them” – and Jobs was pretty good at that.

People also know when they don’t get what they want – even when they didn’t know what they wanted in the first place, if you see what I mean.

And companies which try to impose their own ideas of what’s important on their customers can get it horribly wrong.

Spotify enraged its customers when it unilaterally changed its terms and conditions. Taken aback, apologies flowed and the offending T&Cs were rescinded – but at what cost to people’s trust in the brand?

Maybe they didn’t think T&Cs were a valid customer experience touch point, but a company’s operational view of touchpoints rarely reflects the customer’s perception of the total brand relationship.

This was made glaringly clear recently when we were tracking customer experience with a rural supplies retailer.

One customer reported having made a purchase at an acceptable price, been served by a polite member of staff and having no complaints, but still their overall customer satisfaction scores were diasappointingly low.

Further investigation uncovered poor experiences around the peripheral experience, in particular around dirty toilets and messy loading bays.

Operations staff took a view that the core components were being delivered – good price, good service, a good range of product – and the other things weren’t important to their typical customers. At least, no one ever complained.

Not true, as it turned out. For this customer, and presumably others, the negative emotions elicited by the peripheral experience in store (the toilets and the loading bays) was damaging the underlying brand experience.

Put it another way, the store was doing fine on the more usual measures of  customer service – “getting what I wanted” and “making it easy”. But for a lasting emotional reward, the sort that builds long term equity for the brand, the store needed to be ticking a few more boxes: “they respect me”, “they value me as a person not just as a wallet”, for example.

Dirty toilets might not have stopped that customer making a purchase on the day; but they could well come into play when a new retailer opens its doors down the road.

Making sense of why customers are grumpy

Another thing that matters is gaining a complete understanding about what the tensions in a relationship might mean – rather than just assuming you understand.

For example, while working with a company who managed after-sales service queries for an automotive client, we were asked to look at poor satisfaction scores around call times from the telephone service centre.

The company was concerned that increasing the number of people available to answer the phones would be expensive, so they needed to know what was an acceptable wait time.

A simple driver’s licence-sized laminated card that pledged five, no-arguments cover promises, along with a freephone number, removed customer anxiety and lowered the stress around telephone response times more cost-effectively than actually reducing wait times.

Actually, looking behind the satisfaction scores showed the reason that customers were anxious about the wait time was that they were unsure whether their problem would be covered by their after-sales service agreement.

Rather than employing more staff, the company just needed to give clear information to their customers – a simple credit card sized laminated card that pledged five, no-arguments cover promises, along with a freephone number where they could simply leave a message knowing they were covered and that their issue would be dealt with.

That removed the anxiety and lowered the stress around telephone response times more cost-effectively than actually reducing wait times. Fixing the right problem saved money and led to satisfied customers.

When Steve Jobs said people couldn’t tell you what they wanted, he didn’t mean they couldn’t tell you if they were happy when they got it. On the contrary, customers know when they get what they want.

Equally we shouldn’t expect customers to tell us how to solve their problems. The smart solution is not simply to respond to what they say, but also to understand how they are feeling – and why they are feeling that way.

Four tips to happier customers.

  1. Find out what is important to your customer and what the experience they have with your company feels like to them. Make sure it reflects the customer’s reality, not what you think is important to them.
  2. Don’t underestimate the intangibles or the peripheral elements of the experience. They are unimportant until you get them wrong.
  3. Think about the experience for the customer in relation to the effort they put in. Did they get done what they wanted? Was it easy to do? And did it FEEL like a satisfying experience? Remember emotional energy is valued as much as physical energy, and remembered for longer.
  4. Don’t decouple brand equity and customer experience. Research shows that positive brand expectations can prime expectations about the forthcoming customer experience (people told they were drinking a premium chanpagne brand rated the taste significantly higher than those told it was a well-known mass market bubbles) and actually make someone feel better about the service they receive. Unless of course you deliver a poor experience, in which case the rebound can severely damage the brand.

Colleen Ryan is head of strategy at TRA, an insight agency. [email protected]

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