Differentiating On Customer Experience

Michael Porter famously wrote that companies differentiate themselves by performing a unique set of activities from their competitors' or by performing the same activities differently.

Here are some numbers: 86% of companies say customer experience is a top strategic priority for 2011; 76% seek to differentiate based on customer experience; 46% have a companywide program for improving customer experience currently in place and another 30% are actively considering it; and 52% have a voice of the customer program in place with close to 30% more actively considering it.

With the majority of companies focused on improving customer experience, how can a company expect to differentiate on it? Because there remains a tremendous amount of lip service and intellectual dishonesty about what it takes. Let me give a few examples:

  • Friendly agents game the numbers. Although not able to answer the two questions that I had, a super-friendly phone agent at a major telecommunications firm ended the conversation by asking: “We aim to not only meet your expectations but to exceed them. Have I done that today?” From the tone of the agent’s voice and the question asked, it’s clear that someone at the company is thinking about customer experience. However, the gaming of the question indicates that the company’s culture has a long way to go to actually improve the experience beyond the superficialities. 
     
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How To Build A Customer-Centric Culture

Building a customer-centric culture is occupying the minds and activities of a lot of companies that I’m talking with lately. This is great, because culture is the difference between going through the motions of a script and internalizing a set of values that dictate actions beyond the script.

Let me give an example: I recently was on the phone with an incredibly chipper call center rep at a telecommunications company. He didn’t answer either of the two questions that I had, yet remained friendly throughout the call. As the call ended, he said: “We aim not just to meet your expectations, but exceed them. Have I done that for you today?” Not only was the question a setup that will skew results, but the asking of the question made it clear that the company hadn’t succeeded in infusing customer-centric DNA into at least this person. A more customer-centric response is what you typically get from Vanguard or Fidelity: “I’m sorry that I can’t answer your questions. Let me find someone who can. Would you like to hold or can I call you back?”

Don’t get me wrong: Company intentions are important. Before I get into the culture part, I always step back with clients and ask "what kind of culture?" Don Norman's story about Southwest Airlines, in which the company refused to give customers reserved seats, food, and baggage transfers is a great example. The company's primary value proposition to customers is low prices (along with on-time service that's fun). That sets the stage for the kind of culture the company sets out to create. It's not customer-centric at all costs. It's focused on what’s valuable to customers.

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The Rise Of The Chief Customer Officer

Over the past five years, Forrester has observed an increase in the number of companies that have a single executive leading customer experience efforts across a business unit or an entire company. Whether firms call these individuals a chief customer officer (CCO) or give them some other label, these leaders sit at high levels of power at companies as diverse as Allstate, Dunkin’ Brands, Oracle, and USAA.

We define the CCO as: “A top executive with the mandate and power to design, orchestrate, and improve customer experiences across every customer interaction.”

Who are these new customer experience executives? Why do companies appoint them? And does your company need one? To answer these questions for a newly released report called “The Rise of the Chief Customer Officer,” we gathered data on 155 CCOs, surveyed a panel of customer experience decision-makers from large North American firms, and conducted in-depth interviews with CCOs from both B2C and B2B companies. Here are a few of the nuggets we found:

  • Title. Forty-four percent have the title of “chief customer officer,” 23% are called “chief client officer,” and 8% go by “chief experience officer.” The many, highly varied titles of the remaining 26% highlight the extreme difficulty of trying to spot CCO-level people by title alone, such as USAA’s “executive vice president, member experience” and Sirva’s “customer experience, operational excellence, and chief innovation officer.”
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Environmental Sustainability And Customer Experience

It’s hard to find a firm that says: 1) We don’t care about customers, and 2) we don’t care about being good corporate citizens. That said, it’s astounding to see companies on a daily basis act in ways that show complete disregard for customers and their general well-being. For anyone within companies who cares about brand, this ought to sound alarm bells, particularly as customers become more empowered with global platforms to let others know about their dissatisfaction and as they have increasing ability to take their business elsewhere.

Two relatively new executives within companies are spending their days trying to get company actions aligned with marketing messages: the chief customer officer (or more often a VP of customer experience) and the chief sustainability officer (or more often a VP of sustainability). There is a great opportunity for these two executives to form an alliance that could strengthen both. Why?

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Suits On The Floor, Call Center Disconnect, And Boarding Idiots

Most companies have the intention of providing excellent customer experiences. However, most find it difficult to translate those intentions into the cultural fabric of their companies. I like to give companies feedback on how they’re doing — and to see how customer service people deal with feedback. Three recent incidents with employees made me question how well these firms were making this translation:

  • Suits sitting on the floor. Finding an available electrical outlet in O’Hare Airport is a hassle. While looking, I couldn’t help but notice the number of United Airlines customers sitting on the floor, because the outlets in the main thoroughfare were the only ones available . . . some of those people were even in suits. One would imagine that an employee in a truly customer-centric company would be mortified by seeing their customers sitting on the floor like that. When I approached the United Airlines customer service employee to pass a message on to her superiors about it, instead of seeing the problem, she merely gave me a litany of reasons why it wasn’t United’s issue.
     
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Strategy Should Guide Learning From Voice Of The Customer Programs

Listening to customers through a well-established voice of the customer (VOC) program is critical. However, without a customer experience strategy rooted in a company strategy, it’s easy for a firm to lose track of its core value proposition to key target customers.

Don Norman tells a wonderful story about a conversation he had with Southwest Airlines chairman Herbert Kelleher that speaks directly to my latest report on customer experience strategy:

"Use Southwest Airlines as the model. When customers demanded reserved seating, inter-line baggage transfer, and food service, they refused (and only now, are reluctantly providing semi-reserved seating). Why? It is not because they ignore their customers. On the contrary, it is because they understood that their customers had a much more critical need. Southwest realized that what the customers really wanted was low fares and on-time service, and these other things would have interfered with those goals.

 I once had a lively, entertaining dinner with Herbert Kelleher, Chairman and co-founder of Southwest Airlines. I asked him why they had ignored the requests of their customers. Herb looked me up and down sternly, sighed, took another sip of his drink, uttered a few obscenities, and patiently explained. His marketing people asked the wrong question. They should have asked, would you pay $100 more for inter-airline baggage transfers? $50 more for reserved seating? No, the customers wouldn't have. They valued on-time, low-cost flights, and that is what Southwest delivers.

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The Trader Joe’s Experience: Simplicity For A Cost Leader

I came across a recent Fortune article describing the activities behind Trader Joe’s experience, which illustrate well many aspects I talk about for Cost Leaders in my latest customer experience strategy report. One aspect I found interesting was Trader Joe’s general absence of self-service that I pointed to for low-cost leaders. Rather, the company focuses more on simplicity and layers over it a distinct culture embedded in employees. It pays employees well — meaning it can be more selective in finding individuals who embody its culture — while keeping prices low through other means, such as limiting its selection. The company makes tradeoffs to deliver on low-cost expectations.

My take: There’s no single customer experience strategy, just as there is no single company strategy. The point for both is to find the mix of aligned activities that provide a company with competitive advantage.

The Right Customer Experience Strategy

What is the right customer experience strategy? My new report on customer experience strategy investigates this question. To give it some context, consider customers’ expectations of Costco versus Apple. Costco customers expect barebones service in return for low prices, while Apple customers expect innovative products at relatively high prices. These firms deliver radically different experiences, yet they both delight customers. Should your company be like Costco or like Apple or something else entirely?

The report uses Michael Porter’s three generic company strategies as a starting point to understand core value propositions that should drive the right customer experience strategy.

In researching the report, Adaptive Path’s VP of Creative Services Brandon Schauer was invaluable in pushing my thinking toward using Michael Porter’s generic strategies as a starting point. He had a couple of powerful insights that I think are worth mentioning:

  1. “For customer experience leaders, the first big hurdle is to discern the organization’s business strategy.” I’ve talked with many firms in the process of changing their company strategy, which creates a moving target that is both a challenge and an opportunity for customer experience leaders.
     
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Gaylord Hotels Prioritizes And Delights

I recently talked to a business analyst at Gaylord Hotels who shared how the company is changing its customer interactions using sentiment analysis derived from its Clarabridge software. Three points were particularly illustrative of a company maturing in its delivery of customer experience:

  • Success is about being great at key interactions, not every one. Originally the hotel believed that during a stay, guests experienced 100 different things — 80 that staff needed to do great and 20 that staff needed to do satisfactorily to satisfy customers. After watching sentiment data for the past couple years, the company realized that in fact only five activities most strongly correlate with guests recommending the hotel to others. For example, the first 20 minutes is absolutely essential, a period that the hotel had broken into several discreet steps but that guests viewed as a single experience. Hotel management now works with staff on executing on these five critical activities perfectly, while on the other 95, they only need to perform adequately.  
     
  • Prioritizing investments based on target customer needs saves misspent money. While some managers felt that it was necessary to renovate rooms in a wing of the hotel to transform the property and improve customer satisfaction, analysis showed that the hotel was getting no negative comments about it, particularly from its most important segment of guests. Based on the findings, the hotel decided to invest that large sum of money in other areas, such as a technology solution that helped people find their way through the hotel, which was generating more negative sentiment.
     
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Setting And Meeting Experience Expectations

One of my favorite customer experience graphics here at Forrester speaks to companies “making promises” through marketing and branding channels, while “keeping promises” by delivering value through other channels. However, there are external forces at play that raise people’s expectations. Companies like Google make us wonder why we can’t have good search when looking on a manufacturer’s site for a product; Trader Joe’s makes us wonder why floor staff at other stores isn’t as friendly and helpful; and Zappos makes us wonder why products don’t always arrive ahead of schedule.

I’ve taken liberties and updated the graphic to reflect that the “promises” companies make are really “expectations” that they set, and those are influenced by lots of external factors. In order to meet customer expectations — thus delivering a good experience — companies have to account for those factors that may lay outside of the firm or even the industry.

 

Why Does It Matter?

About 67% of companies that we surveyed describe their customer experience goal as simply trying to differentiate from competitors in their industry. But, they must also factor in the expectations set from outside of their firm or industry. Does this mean that every company needs to deliver a Zappos-like experience? Absolutely not! But it does mean that companies need to understand clearly what their customers really expect from them.