Customer experience is one of the hottest topics in business today. It has become the business buzzword. The reason couldn’t be more straightforward and underscores a clear business message in today’s crowded marketplace: Your customer experience defines the unique point of differentiation for your products and services and is, perhaps, your only real opportunity to stand out.
Yet, despite all the money invested in CX, most brands under perform. Is that so surprising? Not according to David Burrows of The Design Agency in the UK, who says that “40 percent of marketing investment is wasted, as ill-informed or demotivated behaviour by staff unwittingly undermines the promotional promise. The result is that 68 percent of those who do buy go away because of how they were treated.”
The a major reason for this is that most brand strategies today still rely heavily on advertisements, marketing, endorsements and other media-based approaches in an economy that has become predominantly experience based. While marketers can fairly easily present one consistent external face of the brand, delivering customer service that enhances the brand is another matter.
Customer service is a dynamic exchange between human beings, who are highly individualistic. All too often the brand effort is hijacked – or at best, is not taken advantage of – because employees are not aware of and, don’t understand, the consequences of all their brand related behaviours.
The impact is profound. First-hand experience strongly influences consumers’ repurchase decisions. That’s because customers become primed by every experience to create more positive memories of earlier brand experiences. Based on their research, Richard Elliott and Kritsadarat Wattanasuwan at Oxford University, conclude, “lived experience with a brand, through purchase and usage over the life cycle, will tend to dominate the mediated experience of advertising…” Reinforcing a brand through every customer touch-point, therefore, can provide the repetition necessary to inspire repeat purchasing decisions.
Indeed, the Gallup Organisation polled 6,000 passengers and discovered that, by a ratio of between three and four to one, employees of airlines are more important than advertising messages in building brand loyalty. Banking customers are more likely to return, by a ratio of 10 to 20 times, if the organisation has outstanding employees. And in the telecommunications industry, the loyalty of customers is influenced by employees of the organisation at a ratio of between three and five to one, compared to advertising.
And, dissatisfaction with customer service is burgeoning. Not only is this discontent reflected in many nationwide and individual organisational surveys, but it’s now the talk of the Internet with entire Web sites devoted to slamming different brands. Even as businesses struggle to improve their customer service and top management aims at a strong brand, the word is out that service standards have fallen. In fact, if you believe what’s being said, service stinks and it’s getting worse. A study way back in the early 2000s put a large exclamation mark on this point. A survey of 4,000 customers of nine Blue Chip Australian organisations sponsored by the respected Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals (SOCAP) revealed that only one in 20 customers trusts the organisations that serve them! Has much changed since then?
So what was the key reason consumers gave for this lack of trust?
“they don’t deliver on their promises”.
For example, when organisations promise that you are “more than a number” and yet the first information a service representative asks for is an “account number”, it’s no wonder many consumers are becoming increasingly cynical about the role and purpose of marketing. Consumers do ask: Can I trust this organisation? Was my experience of their products and services aligned to the expectations they had created? Is this organisation following through on commitments, or is its advertising just so many words and images with no action behind them? Clearly, a company’s ability to deliver what it declares is fundamental to its reputation. Therefore, the ability to move from a credible strategy to authentic delivery is paramount in building trust.
Customers are strongly influenced to return or re-purchase by their first-hand experiences with service representatives.The skin care product may be exactly the same product that the client bought the last time she was in your spa, but the person who helped with the purchase is probably a different person, or perhaps the same person but in a different mood. The exchange will impact the client's interaction with the skin care product she purchased and her memories of the spa experience. In fact, branding ultimately shapes organisations precisely because it is trust based: we promise, we deliver. When this is not done, customer relationships are more likely to be short-term, immediate, and transactional—and to contribute little to building brand trust.
The public has leapt ahead of organisations on this one. Consumers do not hold one idea of service in their minds: the public is not generic when it comes to service. When evaluating customer service, consumers hold a multitude of personal, specific and unique expectations about services and products relating to specific brands.
Think about it. If you want to distinguish your brand position from another organisation’s brand, it is difficult to do that when offering advertising that looks like everyone else’s. In the same way, generic service will not enhance your customers’ experience about the uniqueness of your brand. Customer exchanges must reflect and illuminate features of the brand promise and brand values.
As one hotelier remarked to us “Our marketing collateral is very good. But do we deliver? If we really delivered what we imply, our customer-return rate would be much higher". The personal service component of the brand experience is therefore a powerful competitive weapon, waiting to be unleashed. But to move service delivery from the bland to the brand, we must do much better in engaging those tasked with overseeing and managing service. Research by Scott Davis and Michael Dunn across ninety global organisations shows that 45% of managers lack an understanding of their brand. Sixty two percent of respondents highlighted lack of senior manager support for their brands. Both of these deficiencies were judged by corporations as threats to their long-term business success.
Of course, some companies are attempting to bridge this void. Unfortunately, many are continuing to use, without much questioning, branding models that are more appropriate to fast moving consumer goods. Customer service scripting is a case in point. Tightly scripted, rule-driven approaches are fraught with difficulty, because they often lead to inauthentic service exchanges that leave customers either ambivalent or scratching their heads in wonderment about the service they have received. It can also lead to bored, underutilised and frustrated staff.
Brand experts Bob Tyrell and Tim Westall make the same point with a slightly different caution.
“Branding customer service requires something much more complex than the bolt-on activities currently parading as ‘relationship’ building. It implies developing a recognizable style and personality, and that has important implications for brand marketing.”
There are those who say that branded service is too expensive and too difficult. But ironically, the big expense for organisations is in shifting from poor generic customer service to excellent generic customer service. The cost lies not just in training people service skills, but investing in all systems and technology required to deliver quick, assured, high quality, error-free service. By contrast, if you are at the point where you know what your brand promise is, then it is more likely that your internal structure and systems are coherent with that branded proposition, and a relatively low investment is required to move from generic customer service to branded customer service. That’s the service that’s going to get you noticed and more profitable. That’s the service that is “on-brand” and therefore “on-customer”.
Top tips for those wanting to build a culture that supports a great customer experience:
If you want to create a culture that supports the customer experience your brand promises, and which clearly differentiates you in the market. we'd love to talk.
Article is based on extracts from Branded Customer Service - the new competitive edge, by Janelle Barlow and Paul Stewart (Berrett-Koehler, 2004). Branded Customer Service is an ON-Brand Partners offering.