Category Archives: customer strategy

The customer experience is about more than fixing things.

Perusing books at Selfridges 1942It’s about employees

At the start of the year, Forrester Research‘s Kerry Bodine and colleagues made some predictions about the areas which will grab attention in the customer experience space this year.  One prediction was that employee engagement will be “…white-hot…” in 2013.

They may be right.  The good folks at HCL have been making this point for some time and attribute their startling growth to an “Employee First, Customer Second…” approach.  In 2010, their CEO, Vineet Nayar, even wrote a book about it in 2010.

Unusually for a CEO these days, at the time of writing some three years later, Mr Nayar is still in post and the HCL stock price appears to be doing very well. Perhaps there is something in what he says.

The core idea, I think, is this: employees are the company.  They make the difference for customers.  If they are happy, motivated and enabled to succeed, then a good customer experience may be possible.  If employees are unhappy, unmotivated or not equipped to succeed, then nothing we try for the customer will really make much difference.

It is in our control

For those of us interested in customer experience transformation, this perspective offers another potential bonus: while we cannot manage our customers, we can and should manage our people. The challenge of working with our people to make things better for customers is in our hands, no-one else’s.

I believe that how company drives its people to make things better for customers indicates whether a company regards the customer experience as an overlay on their “core business’ of selling, shipping and service – or if their approach to customers reflects serious strategic intent.

As Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, said in his letter to stockholders a couple of months ago:

“One advantage – perhaps a somewhat subtle one – of a customer-driven focus is that it aids a certain type of proactivity. When we’re at our best, we don’t wait for external pressures. We are internally driven to improve our services, adding benefits and features, before we have to.”

Proactive customer experience is a strategic choice

This idea of proactivity is the whole game, right there.  Organisations which are serious about the customer experience proactively drive their people to seek to make things better before customers see reasons to complain.

Sure, there are companies which are doing good things by listening to customers and putting in improvements to fix things which customers don’t like.  This work is valuable, and good, but it does not address the real challenge.  If we simply fix things about which customers complain, then we are  playing catch-up. We are saying, in effect: “we aspire not to make customers unhappy.”

The difference is in the bottom line. Jeff Bezos again:

“Proactively delighting customers earns trust, which earns more business from those customers, even in new business arenas. Take a long-term view, and the interests of customers and shareholders align.”

Customer experience is much more than fixing things for customers. It is about making a strategic choice to be proactive in making things better for customers, it is about reflecting this choice in the ways we guide and enable our people to make things better for customers – and it is about doing so because it is the most effective way to grow and sustain the bottom line.

How do our companies measure up?

(Image credit: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

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CRM can be fun. No, really.

Finish line.Thinking about CRM (Customer Relationship Management) from the sales team’s point of view has stimulated some interesting new possibilities.

I once oversaw the transition of a B2B CRM system from a locally installed brand name system to a market-leading cloud-based competitor.  The old system had limped along with inaccurate data, incomplete records and resentment by the sales team.  People saw it as something that could not be trusted, an overhead that  got in the way of sales and marketing.

We were not alone, as Ben Meredith points out in a recent post.

When we came to implement the  new system we had one primary principle: it had to work for the sales team.  This meant that it had to be exceptionally easy and attractive to use, relevant to their roles, with clear triggers for when and how it was to be updated. All other requirements were secondary.

The outcome? An almost seamless transition within six weeks and excellent adoption.

Results? Better accuracy of data, trustworthy analytics and sales forecasting. Better marketing, easier sales, improved customer relationships. Everything we wanted our CRM system to deliver.

These results happened only because we paid attention to the core challenge: whose job are we trying to make better?  For most CRM implementations, this will be the sales team. Get it right for them, and things will get better for the customer too.

Which is why I like the thinking of app developer LevelEleven. Their newly rebranded Compete app adds game elements to Salesforce.com to help drive sales team performance. Their real trick, of course, isn’t the app, but the psychology: good sales teams thrive on competition.

CRM as fun? That can’t be bad.

The qualia of customer experience

Red rose in snow picWe cannot truly understand what our customers experience. But we can understand how they behave. If we want to make things better for them, we will be better off observing what customers actually do, not trying to work out what we think they are experiencing. 

I can’t get into Joe’s head

My friend Joe cannot see the colours red or green – he is colour blind. My colour vision is normal. Science explains this by saying that some of the cone receptors at the back of Joe’s retina are different from mine.

But when I try to understand what Joe sees when he looks at, say, a grassy meadow, I am unable to do so.  His experience of the greenness of the grass is different from mine.   I cannot put myself into his head.

Qualia are what we experience

Philosopher Clarence Lewis in 1927 coined the term qualia to describe the distinct subjective experiences we each have when, for example, we smell a rose, see the white of snow or taste a lemon.

Qualia (singular: quale) are the essence of experience.  They are also pretty much inexplicable by science.  Science – cognitive psychology, neuroscience, physiology – has pretty much nothing to say about what Joe experiences when he sees a blue sky and how that compares with what I experience when I see that same sky.

If you don’t believe me, imagine trying to explain the greenness of a meadow to someone who is blind from birth.

Scientific methods

This is, in part, why understanding the customer experience is tough.  Each customer’s experience is different. If we ask them about their experience – to describe the qualia of buying – we can only get a limited understanding of what they experience.

How does science address the problem of qualia?  It ignores them. Instead of seeking to understand what we experience, scientists instead focus on what they can observe. In particular, they focus on behaviour.  Rather than investigating what  people experience, scientists explore instead what people do when they experience X or see Y.

This is a good principle to adopt when working on customer experience.  Trying to understand the experience of customers is likely to be less valuable – and less effective for guiding our actions – than observing what they actually do.

The perfect, but useless, manuals

This is shown by the PC manuals fiasco. A few years ago a major PC manufacturer took great pains to consult with customers so that  the manuals for new users to set up their PCs were as well-written, user-friendly and accessible as possible. For several years, users rated the manuals as the best in the business – they even won awards.

But it wasn’t until the company undertook some studies into what new PC users actually did that the truth emerged.

More than 95% of users never opened the manual at all.

They turned on their PC and assumed that the start-up process on-screen would take them through set-up. And if it didn’t, they got very unhappy indeed.

The company had made the mistake of asking customers what they thought, instead of  observing what they actually did.

The colours of marketing

Leo Widrich of Buffer.com has written a great article for Fast Company on the science of colours in marketing. In it, he explains how colours can influence customer behaviour.  He also describes an experiment by Hubspot to understand if customers prefer to press a red or a green button on-screen (read the article to find out which button won :-)).

The folks at Hubspot just needed to know which colour encouraged more customers to press the button. They did not need to know why.

As Leo Widrich says in his article: “…data always beats opinion, no matter what.”

And if we are to make things better for customers, it is probably best for us to adopt the same attitude. Let’s worry less about understanding the customer experience and worry more about observing the things customers show us they prefer.

(If you want to find out more about qualia and why they pose a problem for science, the best source is Daniel Dennett, a terrific writer on philosophy and cognitive science.  His 1991 book, Consciousness Explained is a good first port of call; a more technical discussion can be found in his article, Quining Qualia, (in A. Marcel and E. Bisiach, eds, Consciousness in Modern Science, Oxford University Press 1988)).

(Image credit: Paulis under Creative Commons Attribution license)

Your competitors are not who you think they are

bad_spellers_untie_postage_stamp-p172016310883664861uuftb_216Customers don’t compare the online experience they get from us with that from our competitors. They benchmark instead against the best they have seen, regardless of sector. We have to understand this if we are to use customer experience to help us sell and keep customers.

Don Peppers is one of the pioneers of the customer experience industry. In a recent LinkedIn post, he  tells the story of a bad customer experience a colleague had with Stamps.com when trying to unsubscribe from their service.

The customer horror story, however, was less interesting to me than that he (like we all do) compared this experience with Stamps.com with that offered by another company – and found Stamps.com wanting.

That company was Amazon.

Amazon does not sell anything which Stamps.com sells.  Amazon is not seeking to take customers away from Stamps.com. I would be astonished to find that Amazon features in any strategy document which Stamps.com use to understand their competitive landscape.

In the traditional sense, they are not a competitor.

But when you think in terms of the customer experience, are they a competitor?

Damn right.

Customers do not compare the online experience they get with one company with the experience offered by competitors in the same sector. Instead, they compare their experience with the best experience they have had online, regardless of sector.

If we do not offer an experience  which measures up to the best experience which our customers have had elsewhere, then we will have unhappy customers.

It’s not fair, I know.  Customers are not even comparing apples with pears; they are comparing stamps with books.

This really matters.  Because if we aren’t aiming to be cheapest (and very few of us can, in the long-term) and if our market is crowded with me-too products with pretty much the same features (as in almost every consumer market sector), then how do we compete?

The experience we offer our customers, that’s how. When we make it easier, faster and more pleasant to buy and use our products, we win and keep customers.

If this is how we choose to compete, we need to understand that our ‘competitors’ aren’t our competitors.  As far as our customers are concerned, our competitors are everyone who is offering a service, or a sale, or an experience which follows the same grammar of customer engagement that we do. And if we aren’t competitive when compared with these, we won’t get or keep the customer.

Worse, as Don Peppers is showing, they will tell the World about how unhappy we have made them.

But, as Amazon demonstrates, if we choose to compete in this space, with the right attention and commitment, then maybe we could become the benchmark: and that is a very powerful place to be.

(Picture courtesy of Zazzle.com).

Clayton gets it right

Clayton_Christensen_World_Economic_Forum_2013In this interview, Clayton Christensen spells out some ideas which are so right that they almost have the force of Laws for Business.

Clayton Christensen is the godfather of innovation. His books define how people think about innovation, education and disruption (and more recently, values).  Strategy + Business, the management journal from Booz and Co., published a great interview with him here.

In it, he says two things that ring so true that I think they deserve to become laws of business, especially when looked at through a customer lens.

The first concerns decision-making:

“When you make a decision based on expediency—because you think you can get away with paying only a smaller, marginal cost—you always pay the full cost in the end.”

He’s talking here about our personal lives, but it applies in spades in the customer world.  The contact centre which drives agents to keep calls as short as possible for cost purposes almost always pays a higher eventual cost in terms of customers calling again, customer dissatisfaction, agent retention and customer churn.  The website which skimps on early customer testing during the design phase will almost certainly have to spend a fortune in redesign once it goes live and customers don’t like it.

So, if I may, Christensen’s First Law:

If you skimp on things early, you pay much more later. Every time.

The second quote is more substantial, but even more fundamental:

“You might also ask, “What is the job to be done?” Every company needs a robust theory of the job that it’s facing. At the fundamental level, most jobs don’t change very much, even though the technology does. When he was the emperor of Rome, Julius Caesar had to exchange messages rapidly with his far-flung governors. He used horsemen with chariots. Today, we have FedEx, but the job hasn’t changed. If you’re focused on the job that has to be done, you’ll be more likely to catch the next technology that does it better. If you frame your business by product or technology, you won’t see the next disruptor when it comes along.”

Who is doing “the job?” The customer.

And so to Christensen’s Second Law:

Focus on the job to be done or you’ll be beaten by someone who does. 

It’s a short interview, but full of good things.  Read and enjoy.

(Tip of hat to Petrina Alexander, who first drew my attention to the article).

(Image credit: Remy Steinegger, World Economic Forum under Creative Commons License)

How do you know your strategy is working? You say no.

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The Separation of the Sheep and Goats,
Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, c540AD

A good strategy sets out our priorities. Priorities, however, are only valid when we know what we won’t do.

In my experience, organisations are full of managers willing to claim that “…X is our top priority.”

It is much harder to find managers willing to say  “…X is our top priority, so we won’t do Y.”  Which is funny, because this is what top priority means: other things won’t get done. And this is OK, because we are putting our resources and attention into the things that matter most instead..

What tells us what matters most?  Our strategy. If our strategy is clear, we know which markets, customer, products, services and capabilities are most important to us. By implication, we also know which are not.

For those of us interested in customers (and I assume that is pretty much all of us), then if our strategy is any good, we have to make some tough calls.

For example: Are all our customers equally important?

For most organisations, the answer is probably no.   So the next question follows. What are we doing to make sure that our most important customers get the service they need and expect?  And what are doing to make sure that lower priority customers do not get service or resources at the expense of our top priorities?

This is often a tough call. But organisations which genuinely answer these questions can be very successful. Apple, as one example, do not seem interested in mobile phone customers on tight budgets, and they are doing all right. Low cost airline Ryanair, as another, are interested only in the budget customer – and they are one of the most profitable airlines in Europe.

Setting strategy is easy. Doing it is hard. And our willingness (or otherwise) to use strategy to set high and low priorities is one of the one of the reasons why.

Seth nails it

Sinclair C5Only when we build for our customers will they come.

Seth Godin’s blog offers profound, sparse and almost haiku-like wisdom about the new marketing.  If you don’t follow him yet, you should.

In this post, Choose Your Customers, he explains, in very few words, what in my experience is the most common problem leading to product and market failure: when we begin with the product, not the customer.

When we begin with our great product and try to sell it, we are doomed to fail.  If we want people to buy what we do, we have to begin instead with what they need and want, and build (and sell) (and service) from there.

Simple, really – but so easy to forget in the daily muck and bullets of business.