A brave new world of customer experience

Are you inhabiting the world of your customers? If not, you should be, Leslie L Kossoff advises.

Customer service at Christmas - image: HW
Customer service at Christmas - image: HW

In the run-up to Christmas, while you were busier than busy, BBC Radio 4 did what it usually does when the news cycle slows down. It provided more general interest stories. Particularly on the Today programme.

There was one piece that caught my attention. It was a visit to Coutts & Co bank, where the intrepid business reporter Adam Shaw had the opportunity to visit the board room (decorated with incredibly beautiful Chinese hand-painted wallpaper) with the bank's historian and archivist and look at the written transactions of everyone from Charles Dickens to royalty.

You're wondering why I'm writing about this. Chances are, you're not worried about the wallpaper, you don't have documentary evidence of having done business with any historical figures and your own version of an archivist is your bookkeeper.

That's all well and good, but there's an important lesson in here. Because while last month I wrote about what your customers want (HW, 17 December 2010), this time it's all about what your customers expect. It's time to focus - like a laser - on the customer experience.

Business as usual?

No matter which side of the sector you're in, there is no such thing as "business as usual." Not any more. Customers expect what you're not giving them. That's because they find it elsewhere. Not just from other vendors, but in other industries.

That's why what Andy King, the chief executive of Notcutts Garden Centres, did in establishing pop-up stores for Christmas, among other new tactics (HW, 10 December 2010), is such an important learning opportunity for you.

King comes from outside the sector. Way outside. He has a background - online and bricks and mortar - that comes from aspects and providers in the retail industry that start from the perspective of "global" - then grow from there.

That's what you're up against. Not because of Notcutts and not just in the retail sector. That's not the lesson learned. The lesson here is that your customers are bringing experiences from every aspect of their online and real-world life in the door every time they do business with you.

If you're a grower, the buyers you're working with have experience working with vendors - in and out of your industry - that provide better, more just-in-time service than you. With better, more efficient and effective supply chains. At lower prices. That's their customer expectation - and it's your job to meet and exceed it.

If you're a landscaper, the customers you're working with are going to expect the same level of creativity and innovation as the pictures they saw of the BALI National Landscape Award winners - at a much lower price point. Because when they shop for anything else - and I mean anything - they can always find a service provider who will come in at a lower cost.

And that takes us back to the retailers. You're not you any more. You're not the garden centre you think you are. At least not from your customers' point of view. Nor should you be. Because they know that they can find whatever they need - whenever they need it - very likely at a lower price and with better service than you're providing. All of which means you have an opportunity to grow and succeed. First on their terms. Then on yours.

Your customers' world

As an industry, the horticulture set has been inconsistent in adopting the new ways of doing business that so much of the rest of the world has taken on. It's all well and good to say that the technology space is a different animal, but when that space is defining - and consistently changing the definition of - the customers' experience, you have to become part of the game.

Because the given here is that someone else within your sector, in your country or out, is figuring this out. So, using what technology has wrought, let's look at how it translates into action for your organisation - no matter part of the sector you reside in.

Three factors that technology has brought with it define your customers' experiences and they now expect them. From everyone. They are immediate, informative and entertaining. We'll take them one at a time.

Immediate

Your customers live in a world of Google. More challenging for you, they now live in a world with Google Instant, where even before they have formulated their thoughts, the software's sophisticated algorithms have figured out where they're going, what they need, what the resources are that they can access, as well as who is the "best" (or at least the most frequently visited) provider ...

You get my drift.

You've seen it in action. You're probably already using it. Because when Google first decided that it was going to "help" its visitors with this new feature, it rolled that baby out so fast that people had started getting addicted to it before they even noticed it was there.

But even that wasn't enough. Because Google was keeping an eye on Microsoft's competing service, Bing, and noticed that it was providing miniature snapshots of the pages that were listed. So Google added a magnifying glass at the end of each post and now, not only is it figuring out what you need before you've identified it, it has provided pictures - just in case either it or you got it wrong.

Moreover, because Google is Google, its systems are designed to learn from its - and your - mistakes so that it can do a better job next time. So let's take this world of immediacy apart and lay out the questions that determine what you need to do:

- How responsive are you to your customers' needs when they ask?

- To what extent do you anticipate their needs and respond even before they ask?

- How are you using your existing systems (human and technological) to improve your customers' experience?

- How are you using those systems - through employee involvement and data capture and mining - to identify ways that you can position yourself as the preferred provider?

Before you start changing your tactics based on these questions, let's take on the other two sets of expectations.

Informative

This time your model is the Apple Store. Steve Jobs, Apple's chief executive, insisted on changing the customer experience, in part, by offering free information to the customer in ways that were never experienced before.

When you walk into an Apple Store you are surrounded with opportunities to play with the product. Every product. In fact, every version of every product.

Customers can experience what it will be like to use an iPad, for example - and then, depending upon their portability needs, make the determination of whether they will be better served with that, an iPhone, PowerBook or a MacBook Air.

Because, by the time they've played with each product and read the information posted at every station, they've also most likely been approached by or have found a blue-shirted Apple employee with the answers to all their questions. And that's only if they didn't take advantage of the concierge service upon walking in the door to have an employee work with them from the outset.

But it doesn't stop there. Because the Genius Bar offers aftercare. If you don't understand something, or it's not quite working the way you thought, you can always make an appointment with an in-store Genius to get the information you need. Or attend their regularly scheduled free training sessions on hardware and software.

All at no cost to the customer. What this translates into is the customers' perception of Apple's commitment to ensuring their enjoyment and success - whether personal or professional - before and after the sale. Which leads us to the questions that you need to ask:

- How well do you inform your customers about what you have to offer - now and upcoming?

- How do you support those customers in making their decisions long before the sale?

- What kinds of after-sale support do you provide to ensure your customers' success?

- How well-trained are your employees - in all functions - to provide information in their own areas as well as for cross-selling purposes?

- To what extent are your reward and compensation systems designed to support whole-organisation success?

Entertaining

And now we get to visit with an old friend: Disney. The Disney Corporation has been one of the most technologically advanced - and advancing - corporations since its inception. From new camera designs to support its animated motion pictures to audio-animatronics, which brought robots to life in ways never seen before, its Imagineering Department was established to create new worlds.

Right now, its challenge is queues. Disney has invested more in queuing technology and systems than any company before. It had to. For its Disneyland ventures to work, it had to make waiting acceptable - especially given its own estimates that, in a day, its visitors only have time to try nine out of the possible 40 attractions on offer.

Its goal is to bring that to ten in the near future. Its more immediate goal is to ensure that the waiting process is far more entertaining than before - because it knows that its customers won't come back if all that they remember is standing in line.

So, when you go to Orlando and visit the Magic Kingdom, you'll now find video game stations along the queue for Space Mountain. Ninety-five of them. Or, if a line backs up too much (and, yes, they have sensors to monitor volume), a parade or entertainment will pop-up - just where it's needed - to either divert traffic or provide a diversion to standing audiences in order to make waiting acceptable.

All in aid of getting them to come back another time. This, too, is why King's Notcutts pop-up stores made so much sense. Besides everything else, they simultaneously cut the queue in their permanent locations and invited in a new world of customers from the pop-ups. Notcutts expanded without actually expanding.

Think the Disney Stores and Disneyworld. It's the same idea. So, here are the questions - whoever your customers are:

- How are you reducing the time required to place or fulfil sales?

- How are you making that process easier and more enjoyable for your customers?

- What system designs have you added to expand sales in every customer interaction? (Think Amazon's "Other customer who purchased ..." pop-ups.)

- How are you applying that same logic to the interpersonal experience - in person or by phone - to ensure return buyers and increased orders?

What do I do now - and next?

To get at the answers to all these questions and set your strategy in the right direction does not require hi-tech capabilities. It requires time, thought and courage.

To start, both with your technology team and your employees in all areas, it's time to have serious, thoughtful discussions about what your customers are experiencing now.

This is employee involvement at its best. Everyone who works for you is either rejoicing in or bearing the brunt of your customers' experiences. They are your front line and first line of defence - and, chances are, they are not adequately sharing information across functions. That means you're losing valuable information and, potentially, customers.

During 15-minute daily stand-up meetings (which if you're not having, you should, be they part of a Lean strategy, staff, all hands or area-specific), you need to focus everyone's attention on the customers and their experiences. Get the "what's needed or missing?" answers you're looking for from the folks who are dealing with those problems every day.

There may or may not be investment required. Because it's just as possible that you can get the after-sale support you need from your technology provider to mine the capabilities in the programs you currently run that you're not using. Or didn't even know about.

The courage comes from your willingness to hear things you don't want to hear. Do it. Listen. Then take the actions which will create your customers' and your success. L

- Leslie L Kossoff is the author of Leadership Quantified - see www.leadershipquantified.com


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