Many people seem to have just discovered customer experience, as if it’s something new. It isn’t. Every time a customer deals with you, he or she is having an experience. It may not be a WOW! experience, but it is an experience.
All experiences have the potential to elicit responses from customers. Think about when you have experienced (there’s that word again!) very poor service from a company and how you felt. Think also about when a company impressed you and how you felt. Customer experiences, of all kinds, have the potential to produce emotional responses, and that is why they are so important.
A study by Bain & Company found that 80 percent of companies surveyed believed that they delivered a "superior experience" to their customers. But, when customers were asked to indicate their perceptions of the experiences they have in dealing with companies, they rated only 8 percent of companies as truly delivering a superior experience (James Allen, Frederick F. Reichheld and Barney Hamilton, The Three "Ds" of Customer Experience, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, accessed Nov. 7, 2005). Do you sense just a little bit of disconnect?
In other words, "customer experience" is in grave danger of becoming yet another management buzzword that many business people bandy about without fully understanding its meaning or its potential.
Let’s complicate this a little
As is the case with value, quality and other principles that are central to a customer strategy, the concept of the customer experience is not a simple one. It is, in fact, very complex. Therefore, to speak of improving the customer experience demands that we dig deeply and actually complicate the discussion by delving into various types of experiences.
Many customer experiences are eminently forgettable. They are unimpressive simply because nothing particularly important happens. It is a challenge for a business to turn such experiences into something more than they are. It’s difficult to turn buying a newspaper or filling the tank with gasoline into a "WOW!"
But there is an opportunity every time you interact with customers to add a certain kind of value that will enhance the experience of dealing with you. Let’s say I have decided to rent a car for a short California vacation. This fairly ordinary example serves to illustrate the various dimensions of the customer experience. It seems to me there are potentially four different experiences involved in what is, on the surface, the simple rental of a car.
I have decided to rent a car from AVIS because I have used the company before and am generally pleased with its service. (This example is purely hypothetical. I could have used Hertz or Budget.) I’ll fly into San Francisco, pick up the car at the airport, spend a few days driving around California’s Napa Valley, then drive down the Big Sur coast, dropping the car at Los Angeles International Airport before flying out.
Easy to deal with: The first component of my experience relates to how easy AVIS is to deal with. In fact, this is the principal way many managers approach the subject of the customer experience: How easy are we to deal with? This pertains mainly to the various systems and processes that AVIS has in place to enable me to rent a car with a minimum of hassle. I can book the car online or by phone from a central reservations center, or I can have my travel agent do it. I can pre-select the size and style of car and whether or not I want insurance coverage. As I am an AVIS Preferred member, my car will be ready when I arrive at SFO. When I drop the car at LAX, attendants with hand-held scanners will print my bill right at the car, and I will be ready to go to my flight in seconds. All of this falls into the area of being easy to deal with and making things as simple as possible for the customer.
The folks I meet: When I do have an opportunity to talk with employees of AVIS, how do they handle the situation? This happens if I make my reservation by calling the reservation center, when I go to the counter at SFO to get the keys and when the attendant checks the car in at LAX. The central question is whether these AVIS employees make the experience a positive one by being helpful, efficient and friendly. They are the front line in the creation of a positive customer experience.
Product in use: This is an aspect of the broad concept of the customer experience that appears not to get a lot of attention. It’s the experience I have from the time I drive the rental car away from SFO until I return it to LAX. How can AVIS enhance this part of my experience, when I am actually out of sight? Unfortunately, in some companies, customers are left with the feeling that they are on their own. AVIS can give me a 1-800 number to call in the event that I have a problem with the car, supply me with the locations of AVIS offices in the area and ensure that there is a map, flashlight and first-aid kit in the car.
The broader experience: Companies must realize that all customer purchases and interactions with firms are initiated for a reason. I am renting a car to take me into the Napa Valley and down the coast to Los Angeles. The car is, quite simply, a means to an end. What if AVIS were more than simply the company that supplies me with a car? If AVIS knew a little bit more about my plans, it could become an important contributor to my enjoying a getaway. Its employees could point out places to see and wineries that are not to be missed, or they could give me a CD with a guided tour of scenic areas. If AVIS employees see that I am traveling with kids, they might supply games for them to while away the drive time. The more that AVIS knows about me and the purpose of my trip, the more it can customize the experience to enhance my enjoyment—and my image of AVIS.
I find that most car-rental companies address the customer experience in terms of the people, products and ease with which customers deal with them. AVIS, for example, seems to always provide maps (but not first-aid kits or flashlights) and, in Canada in winter, ice scrapers. I haven’t yet seen a rental car company step up to the plate and address the broader experience.
Yet, by focusing on progressively higher levels of the customer experience, companies can offer progressively higher levels of emotional value, delivering the unexpected and contributing to relationship-building.