Category Archives: customer strategy

54 ways to make the customer experience better

Happy customer

We were snowbound at a corporate retreat in Princeton, New Jersey.  We had exhausted the formal agenda and were waiting to hear if the snowploughs had freed the I-95 so that we could get to the airport and go home.

So we were having a few beers and having a general discussion about what works for us in business when Kevin, an experienced colleague who worked in our manufacturing practice, said something so true and so simple that it has stuck with me at every step of my career since.

We were talking about creating and keeping customer relationships, and he said: “Every time I’m going to meet someone for business, before I go in,  I ask myself, ‘how can I create value for them in this meeting?’  If I can do this, I know they’ll want to meet me again.  They’ll learn to trust me.  And, when the time is right, they’ll buy from me.”

The snowploughs came and we put down our beers and caught our planes home, but his simple mantra – ‘how can I create value for my customers each time we meet?’ – has served me well since then.

Because this is the secret of customer experience.

If we want to make the customer experience better, it’s simple. We make every customer encounter something that our customer values. Then we repeat for every step of the encounter.

Find this value and maximise it. If the encounter doesn’t add value, don’t do it.  That’s all.

What’s value?  It’s whatever the customer thinks it is. Things like:

Treating them like a person

  1. Displaying courtesy and good manners
  2. Smiling when we see them
  3. Pitching things in their  terms, not ours
  4. Treating the customer as someone who  is valued and not a potential thief or fraudster (Banks, are you listening?)
  5. Recognising them when we see them again
  6. Recognising them and rewarding them for coming back
  7. Apologising (and not with the weaselly “I’m sorry you feel that way”)
  8. Understanding their problem before offering a solution
  9. Making the customer look good (always a good thing to do)
  10. Showing we are thinking about them, and what matters to them,  even when they aren’t there
  11. Being respectful – of the customer, of our colleagues, of the competition
  12. Being kind.

Making it easy

  1. Taking away something that is inconvenient for them
  2. Simplifying the transaction (or better, simplifying the customer’s situation)
  3. Offering control to our customer (of the conversation, of the transaction)
  4. Making it so that there is only one way for the customer to do something – and it’s always good
  5. Being patient
  6. Making it easy to pay
  7. Making it easy to get money back
  8. Pricing fairly
  9. Being consistent
  10. Making it easy to talk to a person (if that is what our customer wants)
  11. Making it easy not to have to talk to a person (if that is what our customer wants)
  12. Making it easy for the customer to change their mind
  13. Welcoming returns with a smile
  14. Improvising if the customer needs it
  15. Anticipating their questions (nicely)
  16. Listening to them. REALLY listening.  (Note: this one is hard).

Being honest

  1. If we can’t do it, saying so
  2. If someone else can do it better or cheaper, saying so
  3. Pricing things in ways that are clear and easy to understand
  4. No surprises – being up front with bad news and what we are doing to fix it
  5. If there is a quick or cheap fix for their problem, solving it for them
  6. Refusing to sell them the wrong thing
  7. Keeping our promises, no matter how small (especially the small ones)

Being interesting

  1. Being funny (but not offensive)
  2. Speak about their problems more than our solutions

Helping

  1. Explaining what is happening and what will happen next
  2. Putting ourselves in their shoes
  3. Giving them meaningful choices
  4. Tailoring what we do to what they want
  5. Keeping their anonymity (if that is what they want)
  6. Reassuring them
  7. Taking responsibility for sorting things out, even if it is not our fault
  8. Solving their problems quickly and consistently

 Giving them something

  1. Offering something extra (a lagniappe, for example)
  2. Giving away  insight or knowledge because the customer needs help
  3. Letting them take the credit
  4. Giving them things because we think they might like them
  5. Making it cheaper because they’ve come back
  6. Accepting that if they have got things wrong, it’s our fault for allowing it to happen

Speed

  1. Being fast
  2. Being instant
  3. Letting them be slow. Waiting for them. Patiently. And with a smile.
  4. Being convenient in ways that matter to them
  5. Asking them how quickly they want it and getting it to them whenever they say

Each of these will make the customer experience better.  Better, customers will value dealing with us. And if there’s value, they’ll be willing to buy from us.  And they’ll want to do it again. And this is the bottom-line reason why customer experience matters.

(Photo credit: adapted from ‘Happy Customer’ by Dan Taylor, https://www.flickr.com/photos/dantaylor/, modified under Creative Commons license) 

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Five things Game of Thrones can teach us about customer experience

game-of-thrones-logoThis is a bit of shameless puffery on the back of the Game of Thrones (GoT) season finale tomorrow. But I make no apologies: GoT offers a number of useful lessons for those who want to make the customer experience better.

1 What customers like is not necessarily what customers need.

197kv319iaqtcjpgGoT kills off lots of people, including many characters we like. The death of the Red Viper two weeks ago at the end of Tyrion’s trial by combat has left fans reeling, with howls of outrage echoing across the internet.

But this is, of course, one of the reasons we keep watching: because we know that no-one is safe. We may not like it when a character dies, but it makes the show more compelling.

In business, also, we need to concentrate on giving people what they need, and sometimes this comes at the cost of what we want. Virgin media, for example, has designed its business to deliver broadband services at competitive prices.  When something goes wrong, they will do their best to fix it. Drop them an email and they will respond quickly.

But not by phone.

Apparently there are numbers with which to contact Virgin media by phone for support, but I’ve never found them.  And I understand why.  It would add a layer of complexity and cost which would compromise their business model.  Virgin gets it. They give us what we need, but not everything we want.

2 How you do it matters as much as what you do.

game of thrones mainGoT is magnificently shot.  Recent scenes have featured Tyrion languishing in the dungeon while awaiting trial.  Typically, these scenes have opened with a slow shot revealing Tyrion lit from the side, one half of his face in light, the other in darkness; a perfect photographic study and (I daresay) a visual metaphor for his uncertain fate between light and darkness.

Detail.

Richness.

The GoT team are plainly thinking not just of getting through the words that are on the pages of the script, but on how the scene is to be experienced by the viewer.

A relatively recent phenomenon is the rise of YouTube videos which show the unwrapping and unpacking experience of new pieces of (usually) technology.  Luxury goods companies have known this for ever (jewellery is always sumptuously packaged).  Apple is the tech company that pioneered taking this thinking to their products, so now their competitors are doing so as well.

Why? Because packing things nicely makes unpacking them a pleasurable part of the customer experience? Yes, but also because it shows that they care about the details. ‘If they think this much and put so much effort into packaging my product,’ thinks the consumer, ‘the product must be good. They must be good.’

3 Inject some personality and, if possible, fun.

GoT is many things, but fun?  Well…yes.

Earlier this season,  a Meereenese rider was challenging Daenerys’ champion. He shouted an intimidatory, bloodcurdling set of insults in one of the invented GoT languages, Low Valyrian. What he was saying was, in truth, borrowed from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when the French knight pours scorn on King Arthur from the castle walls, saying things like: “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.”

Meerenese insultWas doing so essential for the customer experience? Not a whit. But fun and enjoyable for the cast, crew and writers (and now the fans)? Of course.

As, for example, Virgin Group demonstrates, if your employees enjoy their jobs then your customers will have a better experience. Happy employees = happy customers.

4 Use lean storytelling:
make your story do some work

A GoT season is only ten episodes long.  For those of us raised on television seasons that last thirteen or twenty-six episodes, this isn’t enough. We want more.

But with only ten episodes to cover the many, many stories typically developed in a GoT season comes discipline: tight editing, quick plot progression and rapid character development. Each scene does at least two tasks – to progress the story but also to deepen (or sometimes end) character.

For example, in episode eight of Season four, Ser Barristan confronts Ser Jorah about a letter that pardons him as a reward for spying on Daenerys. The scene contains little explanation, instead directing the characters’ attention (and ours) to the consequences of the revelation and so helping us to understand what is going on. Not a word is wasted in flabby exposition.

got-game-of-thrones-34466376-500-250

Explaining things to customers is boring for us and for them.  But we often need to do so.  Perhaps we should take a leaf out the GoT writers’ handbook and see what extra value we can add to the message make it more valuable, like Virgin America do here – boosting their brand while explaining the boring stuff.

5 Use a long story arc

GoT has several LOOOONG story arcs working in background at any time. The opening scene – even before the credits – of Episode 1, Season 1, reveals white walkers doing bad things to people.  “Winter,” we hear, “is coming.”Winter is coming

Well, it’s the end of season four and there’s not much sign of snow south of the Wall.

As I said: long.

This means that behind every story line and scene is our understanding that some longer stories are playing out.  It makes for a richer experience and means that if, sometimes, some scenes don’t excite as much as others, we accept it, because we know more is coming.

The holy grail of customer experience so to create an enduring relationship with a customer, where both we and our customer knows that each transaction is part of a bigger story.   This what drives Zappos’ success. They demonstrate complete trust in the customer – help when choosing, unlimited free returns and pretty much endless telephone support. Why? Because Zappos don’t want to sell you a pair of shoes.  They want to sell you lots of shoes. And tell your friends.  So if one pair doesn’t work out, that’s ok: they’re with you for the long haul.

The season four finale is tomorrow. I can’t wait to see what happens and I know I will enjoy it.

Wouldn’t it be great if our customers felt like this when they think about buying from us?

Enjoy the show.

Image credits:

Game of Thrones logo: Geek News Network – http://geeknewsnetwork.net/2013/11/21/rumor-telltale-games-is-working-on-game-of-thrones-game/

Game of Thrones death map: Via Jesus Diaz at http://sploid.gizmodo.com/all-the-killings-in-game-of-thrones-in-one-gigantic-glo-1472181613

Tyrion picture: Via http://nerdapproved.com/misc-weirdness/a-new-game-of-thrones-trailer-means-the-season-premiere-is-coming/

Meereenese rider: Timelord at http://timelord903.tumblr.com/post/85416706750/have-you-planted-any-easter-eggs-in-the-show

Ser Jorah and Ser Barristan: Via http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/game-of-thrones/images/34466376/title/barristan-selmy-jorah-mormont-fanart

White walker: http://imgur.com/gallery/zahDJCr

 

How to transform the customer experience without a transformation programme

Welder

Make it better

In my last post, I described ten ways we can make the customer experience better.

Here they are again, framed from the customer’s point of view.

  1. You’re quick.
  2. You are easy to deal with.
  3. You get it right.
  4. You care if something isn’t right.
  5. You prove that I can trust you.
  6. You trust me.
  7. You are honest about what you can’t do.
  8. You act in my interests.
  9. You are professional.
  10. You are honourable.

*Sigh*

That’s a big list.

Let’s get real. We can’t fix everything.

But we do need to make things better.  Customers expect it. Our competitors are doing it.  We need to act quickly, sustainably and now.

And here’s the thing.  It costs very little to make each of these better. Without investing in technology. Without employing expensive consultants.

It just requires our attention.

Our people are already busy. They have to pay attention to the day job and to keep the lights on.  Most folk (and most organisations) can pay attention to no more than two or three things over and above this.

The trick is to choose the things to which we pay attention.

How?

Here is an approach I have found useful. I use it to make a difference quickly for customers. I find it especially helpful when I don’t want to wait for the promised new IT system to fix everything (which it can’t) or for the consultants to transform our processes for the better (which they don’t) or for the programme office to get its act together to deliver its big ‘transformation programme’ (which it won’t).

We talk to our customers. Better yet, we have our people (you know, the folk who actually do stuff for customers) talk to them.

We find out from our customers the things they would like us do better. We prompt them with questions drafted from the set above.  Keep the questions as open and simple as possible.  We’ll get a big list.

It’ll feel bad to see all the things we do badly for customers.

But that’s ok. Because now we can start to make things better.

We talk to our people who are responsible for the things that customers would like us to get better. Have them pick one or two or three things from the list.  No more than three.  Picking one or two is fine.

The criteria for they should use to pick out things from the list are these:

  • We can make it better.
  • We can make it better in ways that make a noticeable difference to the customer.
  • We can make it better within 30 days
  • We can make sure it stays better

Once they have made their choice,  we stand back and give our people license to do what they need to do. We help them when they need it, especially to remove sources of delay. Speed is the key, because we want to pay attention to this to make sure it gets better, and to keep paying attention is hard.

So: speed.

After thirty days, we (or better, the people doing the work) check back with customers about the difference they see.  We share this with everyone.

We test with our people that they can sustain the improvements they have made.  The only real test is this question:  if all our people changed jobs or moved on and were replaced, how do we know that our service would stay improved? If we can’t be sure, then let’s fix it so that we can be sure.

Go back to the list.  Ask customers again.

Repeat the next month. Pay attention to the new thing.

Repeat, repeat and repeat again.

Watch things get massively better for your customers. Let’s give it a go.

What I’m saying here is not original.  It’s just a version of continuous improvement, or Kaizen, or Agile or Lean.

Nor is it intellectually difficult.

And it won’t fix everything (so yes, sometimes, we do need that big IT system or a process redesign, but less often than we think).

But over (say) a year, it will make a huge difference.

And that’s what it’s all about.

So come on.  Let’s make things better for our customers.

(Image credit: USAF photo by Kurt Gibbons III) 

Ten ways to make the customer experience better

two on the beach LomoYou can’t control the customer experience.

You can’t control customers’ feelings, or their personal circumstances, or how much attention they are going to pay to you.  Their experience of your brand, or your product, or your service is down to how they feel. And you can’t control their feelings.

But you can make it better

You can control how you maximise the chances that the experience is positive.

Here are ten examples of what I mean, described, of course, from the customer’s perspective. If you make any of these better, your typical customer’s experience will improve.

  1. You’re quick.  Waiting is a cost to me, the customer. It’s a cost that I don’t want to incur.  Whatever I want, I want it now. The more you can get me what I want straightaway, the more I like it. (Delay also makes it more likely that things will go wrong, and I don’t like that).
  2. You are easy to deal with.  Whatever I want to do is so easy I don’t have to think about it.  I get the information or the product or the service or the support I want in the ways that I want it.
  3. You get it right. What you sell me is what I want.  And what I want is what I get. And it doesn’t go wrong.
  4. You care if something isn’t right.  If it does go wrong, I want you to know before I do. I want you to fix it with no inconvenience on my part. And I want you to put right anything that went bad because your product went wrong, before I have to ask.
  5. You prove that I can trust you. I want to know, before I buy, that I can trust you. You give me value anytime I engage with you, whether I am buying from you or not. If every encounter with you provides insight, advice or help in ways that matter to me, then I’ll trust you with my money when it’s time to buy.
  6. You trust me. You don’t behave as if I am a thief or a fraudster. You acknowledge, listen and act on what I tell you. If you need to do things to make things secure, you explain why and you do your best to make it easy and trouble-free.  You take my side.
  7. You are honest about what you can’t do.  If you can’t help me then you let me know so I don’t waste time or have incorrect expectations. And then you help me in whatever way you can.
  8. You act in my interests.  If something is better for me than what you are offering or what I am requesting, you let me know and you help me with it.
  9. You are professional. You treat me with respect. You show courtesy and good manners. You treat your employees with respect and courtesy as well, as they represent you (and, of course, it is the right thing to do).
  10. You are honourable.  You don’t hide things from me in small print. You make promises and you keep them.  You don’t make promises you can’t keep.  And you do what’s right, regardless of policy.

Improve any one of these things and you will make the customer experience better. In addition, you will cut your costs of sale and service and make your people happier. Improve all ten, and the experience you offer may well become the stuff of legend.

(I wrote this and then discovered Seth Godin’s wonderful post: Your call is very important to us which covers related ground, but with added goodness (I love the idea of routing delayed calls to the CEO’s spouse…)  Enjoy).

Image credit: Mike Bird

Why our customer experience is damned

Hellfire and Damnation

You can please some customers all of the time.
You can please all customers some of the time.
But you can’t please all of your customers all of the time.

(With apologies to Abraham Lincoln and John Lydgate)

Here’s the thing: I hate to be helped in shops. I don’t like it when an assistant approaches and asks “Can I help you?”  That’s just me. Maybe it’s because I live in England.  I want to make up my own mind and seek help from an assistant when I want it.

My friend, on the other hand, likes an assistant to help him. He resents it when he sees staff standing around, not offering to help. He wants them to come up and ask.

What’s a shop to do? The customer experience they offer is damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Many companies try to please everyone. They try to cover all the bases. They attempt to offer an experience that handles their main set of target customers and the others, the exceptions. Result? The experience they offer is confusing. They serve neither set of customers well and both groups of customers become unhappy and leave.

In our businesses we want to avoid this. We must analyse customer data to get insight into what matters to our target customers. We must combine this insight with our own understanding of what we are good at, to think about the experience we want to offer.

Then we must choose to provide the experience that works best for the customers we want to get and keep.

When we do, we know that such an experience won’t work for all customers. But we accept this because we will be confident that it will work for the majority of those we want to serve.

The customers we lose are the price we pay to enable us to offer a great experience for our target market. Why is it worth paying?

Because if we can truly offer a great experience for their target market, then we have a real edge over the competition. We will secure a greater market share. And we can seek higher margins as our customers accept that higher value justifies higher prices.

Even better, we save money. We won’t waste time, resources and attention on exceptions and variations for customers whom we are not targeting and from whom we will get little return.

Of course, the bright reader (and all my readers are bright) will have spotted what has happened here. The quality of customer experience we offer corresponds directly with the quality of our business strategy.

If we have made clear strategic choices about the customers we want to serve, we can confidently provide an experience that they will value.

If our strategy is unclear? Then we can only offer a confused or ambiguous customer experience.

So yes, our customer experience is damned. But it can happen in two ways. It can be damned because we choose to serve our target customers brilliantly and with confidence because we know who they are. By doing so, we are willing to accept that some current customers won’t value the experience we offer and may leave. And we accept this cost, because the payoff for our core customers – and for us – is so great.

In this case, our customer experience is a clear expression of our organisation’s strategic intent.

But the second path to damnation is far, far worse. It happens when we try to please everyone, because we don’t know (or are unwilling to choose) which customers we want to serve. Then we can’t offer a winning customer experience because we have to compromise to try to keep everyone happy.

In this case, the customer experience we offer is equally an expression of our organisation’s strategic intent. But what it expresses is ambiguity and confusion.

Keeping everyone happy may be a good intention, but it is also the road to Hell.

So maybe we have to accept that our customer experience is damned. But let’s choose how we want it to happen. For when we do, we give ourselves a chance to give our customers an experience that will make a real difference to them and to us.

(Image credit: Hellfire and Damnation by Jocelyn under Creative Commons License)

Ignoring millions of pounds – a lesson for 2014

Hugh Laurie's priority seat

Free money

A few years ago, a client told me this story.  She was the European financial director of a large global technology company. The company had a factory in a deprived economic area in the UK.  New legislation to boost employment meant that her company was now entitled to claim government grants worth £5 million.

Getting the money would involve much bureaucratic palaver and a lot of my client’s time as well as much effort from her team.

But still….

Free money?

£5 million?

Her boss, the global financial director, got wind of this jackpot and sent an urgent email to the effect of…

”…Free cash? £5m?  This has to be your top priority.  Please advise me on the actions you are taking immediately…”

To which my very capable, but very overworked, client responded:

“Delighted to make this my top priority.  Please let me know which activity I should downgrade instead: the £150 million pound organisational restructuring or the £50 million tax negotiations?”

She heard no more about it being a ‘top priority’…

Don’t do it

Most organisations are rubbish at prioritisation. This is because most people think that prioritisation is about deciding which things are most important.

It isn’t.  Any fool can do that – and I’m sure that most people reading this have worked for such a person.

Prioritisation is, instead, about moving the less important stuff to the bottom of the list and then choosing not to do anything about it.

Doing this allows us to  apply our finite time and resources on the things that make the biggest difference, rather than frittering away our time – and more importantly, our attention – on the stuff that is, yes, important, but not as important as the big stuff.

As my client showed, we don’t want to waste time on £5m if we have £150m and £50m to worry about.

The price of success in 2014

In this, I am with Tim Ferriss, author of the Four-Hour Work Week.  As he points out in his article, The Art of Letting Bad Things Happen:

“…oftentimes, in order to do the big things, you have to let the small bad things happen. This is a skill we want to cultivate.”

Most of us are terrible at letting bad things happen.  We worry that important stuff doesn’t get done, that key things will get missed, that we will disappoint some customers.

But the alternative is that we continue to muddle through, to try to do everything, to keep wading through the corporate treacle – and end up doing the really important stuff badly, because we can’t give it the time and attention it needs.

But if letting bad things happen is the price we have to pay to deliver the really critical stuff, if this means that the big, big breakthroughs happen, if this is what it takes to transform the experience of all our customers – then isn’t it worth it?

Many of us are thinking now of our goals for 2014. Perhaps we should also be thinking about the things that are indeed important but which we won’t deliver this year – so that we free ourselves instead to work on the big things that will really make this year a success.

What won’t you do this year so that you meet your most important goals for 2014 ?

(Image credit: Karva Javi  under a creative commons license. His Flickr stream is excellent.)

If we don’t trust our own people, why should our customers?

3491629234_bb118fe645_oA gap in trust

When customers complain, they expect that the people to whom they speak will be able to handle it. But this can only happen if our organisations trust customer service agents  to use their judgement, initiative and discretion to do so.

But this is rare.

How do we know it’s rare?

Because too many times the agent has to hide behind phrases like: “…it’s our policy, I’m afraid,” or “…these are the only options I can offer you,” or “…let me speak to my supervisor.”

In other words, our people could resolve the problem, but our policy and procedures get in the way.

Why do we do this?  Because we don’t trust our people.

  • We don’t trust them to do the right thing, so we constrain them by procedures.
  • We don’t trust them to do what is necessary to fix things, so we require them to escalate to supervisors.
  • We don’t trust them to make the right decisions, so we remove their discretion.

Our agents become a barrier between the customer and resolution of their problem. Worse, agents know this, so they feel frustrated and grumpy.

Does the customer pick up on this? Of course they do.

So, instead of making things better for the customer, we make it more likely that we will make an already unhappy customer even more unhappy.

The trust trade-off

Yes, of course, there is a need to have consistent processes so that we can offer consistent standards of service quality.  And, yes, I know that service is a cost and we need to make sure that we manage our costs with discipline and attention.  And yes, of course, we know that if we give our agents free rein, we might incur liabilities and risks which may not be acceptable.

So we accept these constraints. And we require that our people work to them.

And by doing so, we assume that value we gain in meeting these needs outweighs the damage these constraints cause to trust: damage to our trust in our people, and damage to our customers’ trust in our brand.

And yet. And yet…

A different trust model

Is giving agents discretion over customer interactions very different from offering a quibble-free guarantee for returns as offered by (say) Marks and Spencers, Lands’ End or (most famously) Zappos?

Not in intent.  Yes, such guarantees open these organisations up to abuse, but their  success shows that losses through abuse are more than outweighed by the increase in brand perception, trust – and sales.

Perhaps we need to think about this trust thing differently.

So come on. If we want customers to trust us, then maybe we need to think about trusting the people we employ to work with customers to make things better.

Trust is earned – so let’s earn it.

(Image credit: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress), Senator Atlee Pomerene meets first US Secretary of Commerce, William Cox Redfield, c.1910).