What you sell is not what your customers buy


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We often assume that what we sell is the exactly what our customers buy, but it is not often so as we will see. If there is a mismatch between us and the customer in the product expectations, surely there must be also a mismatch between the expected experience and what you deliver. To create great customer experience, you must first truly understand what is the promise that the customers are buying. Otherwise you are working towards a wrong goal.

What the customer thinks he or she is buying differs often dramatically from what the seller thinks he is selling. This leads to a customer experience failure and to demonstrate this in practice I will use a case reported recently in the press.

The story begins with a woman wanting urgently to replace her broken washing machine with a new one. As she was in a rush, she bought one from a large e-retailer and opted for an express home delivery and an installation. She got order confirmation with a tracking number for the delivery, and was happy with the short delivery time. When the electrician, who was supposed to come to install the new washing machine, called to agree the time for the installation, she went online to check when the delivery was going to happen, only to find out that there was a major problem. The delivery company had damaged the box and the washing machine had to be returned to the retailer. As the customer needed the machine urgently, she called the shop and asked them to send a new one quickly. However, the request was refused quoting the Terms and Conditions; a replacement will not be sent before the original has reached their warehouse and checked. A reasonable requirement to prevent fraud when a client returns an item, but an unreasonable one when the item had never reached the client. The frustrated customer next asked to cancel the order, so that she could get the washing machine quicker from another shop. But again the retailer declined citing its T&Cs that they have the right to correct what had failed. The case ended up in the press with bad publicity to the e-retailer.

Where things started to go wrong was already in the very beginning; the seller and the buyer had different views what was being sold and bought. This sounds odd when the scope of the transaction seems obvious. But let us look first at what the seller thought they were selling. They sold a washing machine with two add-on options – firstly a home delivery, which was subcontracted to a delivery company, and secondly the installation, subcontracted to a local electrician. The retailer in their mind sold three separate products, for which they saw themselves being directly responsible only for one.

How about the customer; she thought she bought just one product, a washing machine delivered and installed at her home. She had expected the retailer to coordinate the delivery and the installation, and to keep her informed of any delays. She definitely was not interested in what was happening between the shop and its subcontractors. But where did she get her idea that she is buying just a single product and not three separate ones? From the retailer’s web page. Which maybe did not make an explicit promise but at least an implicit one.

Here there was an internal disconnect between the marketing and operations departments at the e-retailer. The promise implied to the customer by one was not agreed nor kept by the other, and this destroyed the customer experience.
Companies have become good at measuring how good they are at separate transactions (for instance responding to customer emails or calls), but these measures mean little on overall customer satisfaction if they have different understanding than their customers on what is actually being sold and bought. To improve your customer experience, you need to understand what is the product (and the experience) your customers assume they are buying, as that will frame how they will measure the experience in their minds.

How should we approach this from a customer experience point of view? First of all, you need to identify the Expected Experience (what your customers expect to receive) and then design your Target Experience (what you want to deliver). This is of course a business decision regarding where you want to position yourself in the market, which customers you target, and which of their expectations you aim to meet. Then, in order to have a competitive experience, you need to minimize the gap between the Expected and Target Experiences. Otherwise sooner or later a competitor will capture that market. The next task is to design the customer journeys accordingly and continuously measure how your Delivered Experience (what you actually deliver to the customers) fits with the Expected and Targeted Experiences. Again the gap between the Target and Delivered Experiences needs to be minimal.

Outstanding customer experience does not happen accidentally. You need to understand what your customers are actually buying in their minds and you need to frame your targeted customer experience around this perception. Also, you need constantly to measure how well you are actually delivering against expectations and make continuous experience improvement part of the normal business.

Ilkka Huotelin
Ilkka Huotelin is a co-founder and a managing partner at Be Customer Smart a leading Customer Experience consultancy. He advises companies how to find out customer preferences at individual level and use the knowledge in each and every interaction with the customer with the help of advanced analytics to boost the loyalty and the sales.


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