What if our notions of customer experience were wrong?

Nicolas Hammer, Cofounder & CEO of Critizr

 The importance that businesses place on customer satisfaction is nothing new. As early as the 1940s, companies began hiring mystery shoppers to ensure service quality in their facilities and points of sale.

As for the very concept of “customer experience,” it appeared for the first time in the 1990s in the book The Experience Economy[1]. The authors of this work explained that distributors could no longer content themselves with merely offering goods and services, but had to also give their customers experiences that would distinguish them from their competitors. The objective was to create stronger customer loyalty. Customer experience has progressively moved to the core of business considerations, though it is defined and executed differently from one company to the next.

It would be interesting to know why customer experience is more than a nascent concept or new buzzword. It would be intriguing to understand why it has become an essential tool for differentiating businesses and withstanding fierce competition. It seems natural to wonder how to capture it: Should it be defined in macroeconomic terms or altogether free from notions of profitability?

The Human Touch: A Retailer’s Secret Weapon Against Amazon

After making a purchase on Amazon, it is rare for people not to be stunned by the quality of service. The purchase itself is complete in one click, delivery times are becoming ever shorter, and returns are simple and straightforward: the experience is positive, if not somewhat mechanical.

However, the purchasing process on Amazon does not include advice, support or a listening ear. It is on these points that modern retailers can best differentiate themselves. As a matter of fact, when asked where they prefer to do their shopping, most French[JW1] people would likely point to a nearby market or retail outlet. In these environments, they can have conversations with storekeepers, stimulate their senses and thus experience real emotions. Emotions are a tool we would do poorly to ignore.

“Customer experience” can easily be relegated to the status of a fad when companies use it merely to describe choices they make more as a matter of trend or whim than deliberately to reinforce customer satisfaction. Outfitting superstores with self-scan checkout counters just because it seems modern and for the sake of conveying a modern image has little to do with optimizing customer experience, unless it targets specific customer needs.

Solutions that meet the needs of customers in one branch of a chain do not necessarily meet the needs of customers at another point of sale or in a different region. It is extremely important to listen to what customers have to say about their experience in a specific location and to react with a local perspective.

Large brands today have the means to free themselves from homogeneous offerings and instead provide goods and services adapted for the local level. By basing their decisions on local customer feedback, both managing and network directors can discover the strengths and weaknesses of their different points of sale, and the specific expectations of customers in each store, restaurant or bank. 66% of customers are prepared to switch brands if they feel more like numbers than people[1]. This highlights the importance of customising customer relationships.

They will feel heard if, after leaving feedback (whether in the form of a comment, a question, a suggestion, or a complaint), the store manager replies directly to them and in a personalised fashion. Flunch, for instance, allows the managers at each of its restaurants to respond directly to customers. Havas Voyages lets the travel planners in all its integrated agencies contact their customers after each visit to one of their branches. Since customer experience is largely a local endeavour, it must therefore be measured locally!

Adapting to customers’ problems and interacting with them in a personalised manner makes it possible to capitalise upon emotion, which is what will make the biggest difference in the end.

What if it were a mistake to think of customer experience in terms of profitability?

When people discuss customer experience, they often tie it to topics connected with its impact on the business. However, it is difficult to require that every initiative around improved customer experience be measured and calculated in terms of ROI.

If, after 30 years in business, a shopkeeper decides to repaint the faded walls of her boutique, does she truly ask herself if this investment will win her new customers? Customer experience is a form of business capital, and not the contrary! According to Gartner, the first step in improving customer experience is ensuring that managers understand why customer experience matters. It is possible to extend this even further to all employees—notably those who are in contact with customers—because they are already the first to know about customer dissatisfaction.

The starting point for a brand’s headquarters is perhaps right there: asking how to enable employees to become better. A department manager, for instance, is not always aware of the importance of her role in customer experience.

Giving teams visibility of the feedback left by customers at their points of sale—especially compliments offered after in-store visits or successful purchases—makes it possible to involve them more and even to make them more accountable. This brings us back to the local dimension: the more customer feedback for a specific branch is shared with that branch, the easier it becomes to challenge employees there to improve the way they treat and serve

[1] Richard Bordenave’s column, published in Harvard Business Review
[2] According to results published by Smart Tribune in 2018.