Customers have come to expect more out of the companies they give their business to, but who can blame them? Many have had customer experiences that range from outstanding and familial to frustrating and regrettable. It's put more pressure on companies to find a balance between their own needs and the experience they want offer... especially when the well-known “customer-centric” companies are the ones reaping the rewards.
What is the customer experience?
The customer experience is everything related to a company or business that affects a customer’s perception and feelings about it. It includes obvious customer-facing interactions throughout the customer journey (commonly known as touchpoints), but it’s also influenced by elements such as brand recognition and corporate social responsibility.
The most important factors of the customer experience, or at least those that receive the most attention, are tied directly to the company’s business. Business leaders constantly scrutinize how their products or services are able to meet their customers’ expectations (along with where they’re coming up short). As so, the experience of a customer requires constant observation in order to make the necessary adjustments.
An overarching trend of the customer experience is the contrast between the needs of a business and the wants of their customers. For example, a company might assume it’s more cost-effective to hold off on optimizing their mobile experience, even though their customers would strongly prefer a seamless, digital experience while they’re on the go. As today’s companies modernize to keep up with intensified competition in just about every industry, there’s a heavier focus on giving more consideration to the customer experience. In the 2017 Gartner Customer Experience in Marketing Survey, 81% said they expect to be competing mostly or completely on the basis of CX in two years’ time.
Why we’re all talking about the customer experience
Take a moment to think back on a terrible customer experience you may have had. Companies know and understand that their processes and interactions with customers can evoke feelings of frustration, especially now that we have plenty of channels to vent how frustrated we are. It’s proven that a poor customer experience ultimately affects a company’s bottom line, but it’s also clear that many companies aren’t sure what they should do about it.
Gartner expert Brian Manusama noted in our “Transforming your CX through Customer Service” webinar that “many customer experience programs have failed to deliver on changing a customer’s impression of their company”. Companies that are unable to successfully manage the customer experience are often taking a fragmented approach; that is, they’re looking at the different factors driving customer experience and figuring out how each can one can be improved. While they’re doing so, they aren’t giving due consideration to how each factor influences the others.
That approach, Brian says, upholds the chaos that causes unsuccessful customer experience management. By taking a more organizational and holistic approach to the customer experience, it leads to more customer satisfaction and loyalty. For example, Trader Joe’s has developed their own unique customer experience aligned with their customers’ expectations. They go so far as to stock their shelves during busy hours so employees can interact with more customers; a practice that might seem counterintuitive, but one that helps maximize customer encounters for a more personalized shopping experience. Similarly, Apple has crafted a customer experience that ties their products, brand, and customer support together. New customers are encouraged to try out the products on the floor while they provide personalized, concierge-style tech support at their “Genius Bars”. Unsurprisingly, their attention-to-detail towards the customer experience has left their competition playing catch up.
“Setting yourself up for success [...] in customer relationships is about your people. Empowering the staff, the employees, the customer-facing people on your teams to do what’s right for the customer.”
- Mikkel Svane, CEO of Zendesk
Part of why these successful companies are leaders in CX is due to their emphasis on being “customer-centric”, and doing so in a way that permeates throughout the company’s culture. As mentioned in Gartner’s webinar “The Top 10 Strategic Technologies for the Customer Experience”, every employee is capable of building or destroying the customer experience. Their dedication to their work results in great and impressionable experiences; essentially, “customer-centricity” isn’t something that they do, it’s who they are. As Mikkel Svane, CEO of Zendesk, noted at his 2017 Relate Live keynote, “Setting yourself up for success for this change [within your org] in customer relationships is about your people. Empowering the staff, the employees, the customer-facing people on your teams to do what’s right for the customer.”
What’s a simple way to think about the customer experience?
The customer experience entails everything that can leave an impression on a customer, which makes it impossible to be completely simplified. But it does call for expert leadership that understands how each department plays a role in crafting an encouraging customer experience. There isn’t one department “owns” the customer experience; that kind of mentality ultimately results in the fragmented approach that Brian warns of. Each part of the customer experience has to strive for a similar goal that will enable them to be customer-centric.
We’ve broken it down into four parts that should be unified for delivering the customer experience: sales, marketing, product, and customer service.
Let’s go into detail on how they affect the customer experience:
Marketing’s role in the customer experience might be the most dynamic; it needs to be constantly adjusting to match the shifting needs of their customers. The department is often responsible for making the first impression on a prospect through ads, outbound campaigns, and word-of-mouth. It’s influence continues through a a company’s public communications, web presence, and how their brand is conveyed. The data accumulated through marketing efforts can expose the trends and habits of customers, which in turn can inspire more personalized and tailored customer experiences.
Sales is responsible for solidifying the expectations of becoming and being a customer. Outside of quick retail experiences, the sales process is often very attentive to the customer journey and meeting the needs of their prospects. This provides valuable insights concerning what customers are looking for (be it specific features, follow-ups, support requirements, etc.) which in turn can influence the efforts in the other departments. When CX is in-sync, sales can be more enabled to close repeat purchases and reduce churn rates.
The goods and services provided by a company and the customer experience are closely linked; many customers will pay more for an experience than the product they’re receiving (think of the differences between high-class dining and fast-casual faire). Beyond the immediate experience, there are details like reliability, affordability, user experience (UX), general ease of use, and a product’s life cycle that all tie into the customer experience. The experience provided by the product is the primary contributor to a business’s reputation, which in turn impacts every other part of the customer experience.
After a sale, customer service is the primary department that interacts with the customer. That doesn’t mean that support the “totality” of the customer experience, but it can often be the deciding factor for ensuring a positive experience. Support agents are in a position to garner necessary feedback on the customer experience: they can see how customers interact with the product, how (and if) expectations are being met, and how the customer base is changing. Feedback is the most critical part of the customer experience; businesses can’t effectively evolve with without it.
6 ways that customer service improves the customer experience
Brian Manusama defined customer experience management as “the practice of designing and reacting to customer interactions in order to lift satisfaction, loyalty, and advocacy". “Reacting” is something that first involves directly interfacing with customers and learning exactly what they expect from the business. While it can be done though every department (Sales with their prospecting, Product’s UX research, etc.), the interactions that come from customer service paints an accurate picture of what it’s really like to be a customer. A company’s approach to support can help drive the holistic, feedback-driven culture that helps make a company more customer-centric.
If you need more evidence of how important customer service is to customer experience, consider that 66% of B2B and 52% of B2C customers stopped buying from a brand after a bad customer service interaction. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for tweaking customer service in relation the customer experience, but there are many things that can help drive the improvements:
- Listening to the voice of the customer
- Process management
- Analytics and measurement
- Content management
- Utilizing AI
Listening to the voice of the customer: Figure out what it is your customers want from your business. There are many ways to utilize customer feedback (also of note: the three types of customer feedback) so that their needs can be matched with the appropriate support. This provides more insight into your customers’ expectations that are set by sales, marketing, and other economic and societal factors. If you aren’t sure of new changes in your industry, you may have to send out surveys to obtain a better understanding of your customers’ changing expectations.
Process management: Flexible systems can formalize support processes and accommodate all of your customers’ requests. It should also be able to scale to the kind of growth you want to achieve. As customers become more inclined to reach out in any way that’s convenient for them, it may be worth adopting processes that can use an omnichannel approach.
Analytics and measurement: The stories found in the data about your customers and your support agents will clue you into many things: the efficiency of the support organization, general satisfaction with the interactions, behavioral trends amongst your customers, and lots more. Refining processes with the customer experience in mind starts with understanding what the data is saying.
Content management: Content that can help customers help themselves, also known as self-service, is a preferable method for easily-solvable issues. Usually it’s in the form of help articles or automated assistance that quicky point customers in the right direction. Ensuring that your content is accurate and up-to-date is crucial; an unhelpful article translates into a bad experience.
Personalization: Tailoring support efforts towards customer personas can go a long way, especially in the case of customer experience. Gathering context about who they are (they’re preferences, personalities, habits, etc.) can better target your support for faster resolutions. It may be helpful to conduct UX research on your support initiatives to figure out the ways to make it more personalized.
Utilizing AI (while being aware of its limitations): AI-powered chatbots and virtual customer assistants are handy for quick, repetitive tasks. But when they reach their limits on providing capable support, humans need to be there to help their customer. Gartner estimates that by 2022, 72% of customer interactions will involve an emerging technology such as machine-learning applications, chatbots, or mobile messaging.