Delivering an Experience

For many businesses, the only way to stand out is by creating a unique experience for their customers.

His name was Ryan and he was a Customer Service Representative (CSR) for a major cable TV/broadband provider, probably the biggest in the nation.

The issue at hand was the cost of the plan. The bundle package that included phone, internet and cable service, which initially cost $99/month and was always paid on time, suddenly shot up to $535 due immediately with a threat of disconnection.

Ryan was the poor guy who finally picked up the phone after 40 minutes on hold, while an inane mechanical voice kept on about how important this call was to the company. It would take only a moment of listening to his soulless delivery, repetitive questions, and poorly scripted answers to make one yearn for that mechanical voice and its hopeful message that this call actually meant something. The call went on with Ryan quoting company policy and a contract that no one outside the company had ever seen, much less read. At length, a supervisor was demanded and the tenor of the conversation changed from dull and gloomy to rude and belligerent as the supervisor—someone named Pam—made it very clear that if the bill wasn’t paid, service would be cut off. It didn’t matter to her that the service was “upgraded” to something far more expensive without the customer’s consent, that they had gone from billing for the previous month to billing a month ahead, or that they were trying to prorate the extra charges back to the start of the last billing period, which seemed to be when the changes were introduced. As Pam so eloquently put it, “Pay it or get cut off.” That was their policy. End of conversation. Hello? Dish Network?

From a customer service point of view, this encounter between customer and corporation was terrible. From a customer retention point of view, it was—along with the predatory billing issue that led to the call in the first place—suicidal.

The company lost a customer in good standing, one who was satisfied with her service, paid her bill on time and in full, bought the occasional On Demand movie and upgraded to Showtime so she could catch The Tudors. She was, by all rights, a “good customer,” and yet she was treated in a way that was criminal, at least morally if not legally, by a corporation that seems to believe that it has the right to do as it pleases.

In a way, they do have that right. This company is entitled to set its own priorities, so they can deliver the kind of service they believe their customers deserve. Companies do it every day, whether they realize it or not. On the other hand, its customers will either accept that treatment or go across the street, like the customer mentioned above. With the proliferation of broadband communication companies offering the exact same mix of services, companies that were once monopolies are now looking at real and fierce competition. Perhaps our cable company doesn’t understand that this means customers have a choice. Maybe the company’s management doesn’t realize that when customers have options, that means you have to step up and deliver something that will make them want to stay. You have to give them an experience that makes dealing with your company a pleasure and you have to remember that, as author and former Lowes Hotels CEO Jonathan M. Tisch puts it, “Chocolates on the pillows aren’t enough.”

The Total Customer Experience

According to Tisch, developing a total customer experience means that “the leaders of the organization must learn to examine the customer experience as a totality, understanding the importance of every touch point, empathizing with what clients need and want at each one, and then designing the organizational structure to provide it.” In other words, the organization must become completely customer-centric in its outlook. The reason behind this is simple: People remember experiences; they do not remember features or attributes. Someone renting a car, for example, may or may not remember that the interior of the Ford they rented was black with red piping and that it had a CD player, but they will remember the way the desk clerk treated them. They will remember that when they found that cigarette burn on the seat, the clerk put them into a new car—a better car—than the one they originally were given. You want to bring your customer into a better place than they were and you want your company associated with that improvement.

To be able to do that, you need to know where people are coming from. Tisch observed that “The truth is that today’s rapidly changing world, which is making life so difficult for those of us who run organizations, is also making life hard for our customers. We are not the only ones who find the 21st century stressful.” He went on to describe a world that is increasingly hurried, painfully insecure, physically and mentally exhausting, socially and economically fragmented and psychologically and emotionally demanding. In this kind of world, Tisch holds that people need to feel free from time pressures, safe and secure in their surroundings, pleasantly stimulated both physically and mentally, at peace with themselves and others, and open-minded, creative and productive. “The organization that can provide such opportunities by reimagining the customer experience—whether they are businesses, nonprofits, or government agencies—will attract an enormous number of customers in the years ahead and keep them coming back.”

That, of course, is the point. In a price-oriented marketplace, where there is no such thing as brand loyalty, customer experience is the one place where companies can really stand out. This was the issue that writer and e-mail marketing expert Karen Gedney discussed in her article “Are You Leaving Money on the Table?” The article describes her recent vacation in Iceland and talks about her experience with the various companies that contributed to her overall customer experience. She writes: “Having conducted most of our trip research by e-mail and on the Web, I got to see how the tourism business is conducted in Iceland—and I think the travel industry is leaving money on the table.” Gedney then proceeds with a number of suggestions, ranging from welcome messages to alerts to selling opportunities to community building, for how these businesses could have made the trip—her customer experience—that much better. She concludes by advising her readers to take a close look at the experience of their customers and see how they can improve the customer experience.
Someone renting a car may not remember that the interior was black with red piping, but they will remember the way the desk clerk treated them.

Gedney’s suggestions and the experiences that led her to those suggestions fit perfectly with Tisch’s list of what customers really need. For example, Gedney writes that “It doesn’t take long when you’re driving in Iceland to start thinking, ‘I should have rented a vehicle with four-wheel drive.’ While the main roads are great, once you go off the beaten track, you can find yourself on treacherous gravel roads. If I had gotten a message from the car rental company saying we could trade in our car for an upgrade, let me tell you, I would have jumped on it. Without that auto-suggestion, we just soldiered on the best we could, not even considering that there was another alternative.” To Gedney, this was an example of where up-selling would have been appropriate. However, it fits the need to be safe and secure cited by Tisch. There are, after all, few experiences that feel less secure than driving around the countryside in a place you have never been before. Additionally, taking a small or mid-sized car over rough roads is certainly not as safe as taking a 4x4.

Everyone Creates the Experience

Great customer experiences do not simply develop out of the air, much less out of the proper workings of your company. No, they have to be created, engineered as Tisch puts it. Changing to a customer-centric mindset is a top-down process, which demands that every employee focus their attention on how they can improve the experience of their customers. “This complex series of tasks calls for an array of skills and concerted, continual effort by all your people—not just those who are formally charged with customer care (such as sales reps and service personnel) but by everyone whose work affects customers,” said Tisch. “And that, for all practical purposes, means everyone.”

One illustration of this idea that everyone must be involved in creating the experience, is a change that New Jersey-based Commerce Bank is making to its corporate culture. According to Tisch, Commerce’s Chief Retail Officer, Dennis DiFlorio, explained the changes like this: “The greatest insult you can give someone here is to say, ‘You are thinking like a banker.’” They have taken the traditional, institution-oriented banker mindset and turned it on its ear. One of the ways they do that is with their “Kill a Stupid Rule” program. What is a stupid rule? It is anything that keeps you from wowing a customer and if you find one, the bank pays you a $50 bonus. What’s more, the bank conducts thousands of “mystery shops” each year where everything about a branch is evaluated from the facility’s appearance to how the shopper was greeted by the employees.

Start at the Bottom

The beginning of the customer experience is how and where the customer comes into contact with your business. This may be at your office or store, over the phone with a customer service agent (CSA), or it might be on your website; but wherever it is, that point of contact is the beginning of the customer’s experience and it needs to count. After all, just as a customer can walk into your store, pick up a phone or land on your homepage, they can walk out, hang up, and surf away just as easily. Your customer portal needs to be easy, pleasant and fun.

The customer’s initial experience with your company needs to put them at ease. They should not have to jump through hoops to do business with you and when they first encounter your employees, they should be made to feel welcome and important. One of the things that the mystery shoppers at Commerce Bank look for is a genuine greeting. They have to believe that the staff is happy to see them and is interested in helping them.
In a price-oriented marketplace, where there is no such thing as brand loyalty, customer experience is the one place where companies can really stand out.

This is only the start. Your products should be more than just things you sell, they should be solutions that fulfill the needs of your customers. There is a reason no one wants to talk to a salesman. We all hate to be sold. On the other hand, we all love to have our problems solved and our lives enhanced. This is also a great time to collect some information that you can use to maintain the relationship and stay in contact with the customer after the sale is complete.

The broadband company at the top of the article seems to think that once you make the purchase and they have you as a client, then they can do what they like with that relationship. You cannot think that way. Just because the customer walked out of your store with a bag, that doesn’t mean your relationship with that person has ended. If you have the customer’s contact information, stay in touch. It doesn’t have to be dinner and a movie, but follow-up on the sale where appropriate and thank the customer for patronizing your business. Make sure they know that if there is a problem with their purchase, you will be there to help them, and if they have to take you up on that offer, don’t scrimp. Sure, the product may say Sony or Toshiba on it, but it is your store that sold it. Think of it this way: The customer comes to you because they have a need to fill or a problem to solve and they buy your product thinking that it will solve that problem. If your product then becomes a problem in and of itself, then you have a responsibility to take care of it. Sure, it may cost a little money, but think of that as an investment in keeping this customer.

So, what do you get out of all of this, other than that one satisfied customer? You get the best marketing and PR you will ever have: Sincere word-of-mouth advertising. Let’s face it, we live in an era where good customer service is the exception rather than the rule. People talk a lot about it, but when it comes to translating talk into action, most places fall short. If good customer service is a rarity, imagine how elusive great customer service is. When it is sighted, like a lion in the tall grass, people talk. More than that, they blog and they Twitter, they MySpace and they Facebook. Consumers discuss their experiences on discussion forums and chatrooms, face to face and over the phone; and they share the names of the companies that gave them those experiences.

You have a chance to stand out in this world of fluid communications by turning to your customers and making their experience with your company the best it can be. That kind of effort gets noticed and the talk it generates brings in new customers. Or, you can end up on and compete with the other customer service bottom feeders for the distinction of “Worst Company in America.”

The choice is yours.

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