You Have a Customer (& Employee) Bonding Problem: Fixing the Intangibles

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Fix the product. Improve the process. Speed this up; slow this down; shorten that.

We instinctively look to remedies in the performance of the products and services we deliver to boost our CX or loyalty scores. It is easy and logical to call out the folks in the white coats and have them engineer a fix: improve the rate of acceleration from 0 to 60 by a second, shorten the time to fulfillment by 33%, make it shinier/bigger/smaller/whatever by a fraction. We know how to deal with tangible performance criteria: grab a screw driver and fix it.

But what if the tangibles aren’t the problem? For years the data has been clear: differences in the quality of performance – that is, the quality of the “stuff” you sell – isn’t all that material (my apologies to all of the Product Managers out there). Our efforts to sell based on differentiated, superior offers notwithstanding, products and services within any price point are highly, highly commoditized. In all likelihood, your product isn’t the problem.

So what is it that distinguishes between the loyal customer and the unwilling captive that is primed to defect? Or between the customer delighted with their most recent experience versus those who were left disappointed? Or between the engaged, committed employee and those who are disconnected place-holders?

It’s the bond, the emotional connection between the company and its customer and employees that distinguishes between these groups. The problem is that the clipboards of the white-coat team have ideas and define the tools to fix tangible things, not the feelings of customers or employees.

The Disconnect
This is the major disconnect between the core issue underlying the gap between weak customer and employee relationships and disappointing experiences and how most companies seek to resolve such challenges. In short, they work extra hard at solving the wrong problems and tend to ignore or dismiss the real issues.

This is not to suggest that product/service performance doesn’t matter or that further improvements aren’t warranted. In most instances, however, quality is not the key issue behind weak customer or employee relationships or experiences. Why do satisfied customers defect or start spending more money elsewhere? Because the emotional bonds are too weak. And that’s why employees pick up and leave.

The key is to build an emotional connection, a bond, with customers and employees. But many, if not most, firms are frustrated by the need to address such intangibles, as there are no clear blueprints and schematics that point to a direct fix.

What makes the disconnect even more peculiar is that the branding and messaging/advertising folks, lacking the “luxury” of dealing with a population with direct product or work experience have long dealt with “softer” measures of imagery, positioning and perceptions. Andy Davidson, a former colleague from the brand research side at GfK, always argued that the biggest difference between the brand work he did and the loyalty/CX work I did was simply the sample/target population: the latter focuses exclusively on customers who have experienced the product or service, while the former deals with a far larger audience that includes noncustomers. Consequently, the brand work can’t speak much about the actual performance of the product/service and must focus on how non-customers feel about a company, while the loyalty/CX work tends to over index on actual performance criteria.

Now What?
OK, it isn’t easy. But ignoring the intangibles or continuing to focus on product or process performance that doesn’t move the emotional needle isn’t going to change much. While our understanding of emotions – how they are made, how they can be influenced and how they affect behavior – may be far from perfect, the ostrich strategy of ignoring these issues only makes matters worse.

It’s time for researchers and marketers to get far more aggressive in the incorporation of concepts from behavioral economics and emotional intelligence in their work and much more overtly measure and analyze the impact of emotions on customer and employee behavior. Treat the emotional dimension like you do any other decision criteria: instead of engineering improvements in speed/durability/reliability/whatever, test and design paths to improve customer and employee feelings about the firm and its products/services. Think of customer feelings like any other performance criteria (only one that probably is more important than the others).

Start working on the challenges of boosting the extent to which customers and employees project or say they love your company or a particular experience or reducing the frequency with which they express anger, frustration or outright hate. Learn to differentiate between emotions so you can respond to and try to elicit specific emotions. You probably have some tools for responding to customers on a (near) real-time basis: start trying to understand the emotions behind customer feedback and calibrating your handling and communicating with them in emotional terms.

I remember listening to Daniel Kahneman speak years ago. He implored his audience of marketers not to be too ruthless in using the tools of behavioral economics in manipulating the behaviors of consumers. While his Big Brotherish warning was not misguided, companies have barely scratched the surface of trying to capture, understand and influence the emotions of customers and employees to try to motivate desired behaviors (and demotivate undesired behaviors).

In short: it is long past time to stop acting like customers make every or even most (or perhaps any) decision as if they are reading the label/ingredients/product specifications and carefully weighing the cost/benefits and competitive alternatives. Go out there and make them FEEL great instead.

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