There’s a saying in CX: You’re not only competing against your industry peers, you’re also competing against Zappos. While folks in the shoe business can take that sentiment seriously and literally, the idea is that Customers these days are getting more used to outstanding experiences from certain brands. Besides the online shoe retailer, people point to Four Seasons hotels, Wegmans, and Apple, among a small group of elite Customer-centric companies. These brands are impacting Customer expectations far beyond their own industries. No matter what line of business you’re in (and whether you’re offering a product, service, or both), Customers know what it feels like to be treated well…and more and more they’re coming to expect it from everybody, no matter what. You could say, everybody’s expected to be Zappos these days.
That’s a lot of work. But here’s the good news: While Customers are comparing you to Trader Joe’s and USAA, they’re also comparing you to the Department of Motor Vehicles and (let’s be honest) just about any domestic airline not named Southwest or Jet Blue. My point being that, while Customer expectations are formed at the high end by these elite performers, sometimes they’re also prepared for the worst; and especially so if you happen to work within an ecosystem traditionally associated with poor experiences. Sometimes it doesn’t take moving heaven and earth or necessarily knocking an experience out of the park to make a mark. Simply addressing a known Customer pain-point that none of your peers is taking care of can do the trick.
Here’s an example: A few months ago we needed a visit from our cable company. Now, this is an industry everybody has an opinion about, and it’s almost never complimentary. Oddly, when you think about it, it’s also in industry with which we interact quite rarely. Unless there’s an outage, you’re likely only to think of your cable company when you move into a new place and need new or transferred service, or like we were experiencing that day, you want to add new services to an existing account. But even those rare interactions have led to the universally shared old gag: “We can be there between 8am and noon, or between 1pm and 5pm.” But when it came to scheduling for me, I was pleasantly surprised: They were able to offer me a 2-hour window, and had many available options within just the next couple days. Was this earth-shaking and the greatest experience I’d ever had? Surely not…they’d only shrunk the window from four hours to two and after choosing, I still wasn’t sure exactly when the service would arrive. But given how low my expectation was to begin with (fair or not), simply making that effort to address a historically well-known shortcoming within their industry, my cable company was able to stand apart and make a positive impression. (Full disclosure: They did make the window I scheduled, and were able to knock out the job quickly and get me up-and-running.)
Oftentimes we’re blinded by what we’ve come to expect. That can apply narrowly within our own organizations, but also broadly apply to an entire industry. We settle for that worldview, and knowing that nobody around us is breaking out, we don’t feel that imperative to excel either. So if, for example, we’re in a highly-regulated business, we may take comfort knowing that all our competitors are struggling under the same weight. If our supply chains are tight and unforgiving, we tell ourselves, at least it’s industry-wide…so what can you do? Sometimes this is enforced and enabled by our competitors, none of whom may have considered or bothered trying to stand out either. It gets so that even our Customers don’t expect anything more from us because poor service is what they’re resigned to.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to differentiate yourself from the crowd, it can be tempting to try (or at least fantasize about trying) to ‘Zappos the whole industry’ by perfecting the Customer experience, sparing no expense in resources, time, talent, and money. That’s usually not feasible, and as a result, it can feel overwhelming and impossible, so we just choose to muddle through, enabled by the comfort of knowing none of our peers is bothering either.
But there’s a better way. Standing out and gaining the reputation for offering a great Customer experience (at least among your competitors, if not necessarily up against Disney) may be more accessible than you think. You don’t have to blow everything up and reinvent what Customer-centricity means to your industry. Nor (despite what some CX consultants would have you believe) do you have to make every experience with your brand outlandishly exceptional for every Customer. It can be as simple as identifying one simple aggravation your Customers have grown (even if grudgingly) used to in your line of business and addressing it. For that matter, you don’t even have to perfect it—just show it matters to you as well. If there’s something your industry is notoriously bad at doing, that makes identifying your improvement target easy. But if not, study the issue yourself: Walk in the Customers’ Shoes; see what it’s like from their perspective. Then go about alleviating that pain-point.
Again, you don’t have to solve the problem completely…but if you can get your shipment there faster when nobody else who sells what you sell can seem to figure it out; or if you can make filling out all those forms that makes doing business with you (or any of your competitors) such a pain in the neck; or if you can make this thingamajig that people have to snap on to that other doohickey whenever they’re using the gizmos that you and your competitors manufacture easier to work with…Well, look what you’re doing: You’re standing out, in a good way.
People will ask, “Why did nobody ever do that before?” The answer will be that nobody ever really saw things from the Customer’s perspective and had the foresight to do something about it. Given how daunting fixing everything seemed, nobody bothered to try to stand out in even a small way. Everybody in the industry dreamed about being Zappos, but nobody—until you—realized the brilliance of simply beating the DMV. You’ll have broken away because you realized that standing out among notoriously bad CX is easier than it seems…much easier than trying to blow away the competition or grasping at the brass ring; and much more rewarding than simply giving up.