Great marketing is about the personal touch

Simon Rowland, senior consultant at UffindellWest, suggests a practical plan to capitalise on consumer touchpoints to create excellent customer experience.

We all know what it feels like to leave a shop, put down a phone or finish a meeting feeling that we've really achieved something -- done what we've set out to do in an efficient and time-saving way. But whether it's braving sullen and unhelpful shop assistants to trawl for last-minute Christmas presents or receiving another dull Christmas card from a supplier you can barely remember dealing with this year -- we also know what it's like to experience a mediocre or downright awful customer experience. When it's bad, we know it, when it's good, we pretty much take it for granted -- our research explores what a company can do to push beyond just good and on to exceptional.

What defines exceptional customer experience?
According to our research, a firm that offers a truly excellent customer experience is one that not only offers a consistently good service in general, but is also value for money, good at resolving problems or complaints, responsive to questions, and one that inspires a high degree of trust in their client. But this is just the beginning -- our research highlights that while factors that make up a strong customer experience are important for keeping up with competitors, great companies stand out by going the extra mile in a variety of other factors such as shared ethics, valuing the client's business and treating the client like an individual.

We would argue that truly exceptional customer experience can only come from the confluence of three factors:

  • engaged employees who enjoy positive experiences;
  • quality customer-facing behaviour - more likely to come from these engaged employees;
  • adopting an attitude and tactics that say "we are not just great, we are exceptional".

Defining the experience
This is in essence about defining a shared idea about products and services which both customer and employee buy in to. An exceptional experience is one a customer remembers. One that will lead them to recommend your company to friends and colleagues. One that will keep them loyal to you -- even if the same product or service is offered more cheaply elsewhere. The challenge is to identify the essence of the service ethos and experience which makes your company different. It's about creating signature experiences that are unique to your organisation.

The research
An earlier study by UffindellWest revealed the extent to which building and maintaining trust is an essential component of a brand's strength, often helping to justify a premium price or positioning. We know that a quality customer experience is fundamental to building this trust. Employee interaction, the services on offer, and wider branding issues are pivotal to creating the most powerful and influential companies.

The customer study examined the views and attitudes of 1000 business people from the UK and US, from a broad spectrum of age, gender, seniority and business fields. Each was asked a series of questions regarding their relationships with suppliers, and their opinions on their working environment.

What was most surprising was that customers weren't particularly concerned with the material aspects of service -- those often used in expensive campaigns to promote companies. They didn't seem to mind if services were different from what they could get elsewhere, if there were offices nearby, or if they received a tailored service. What they did care about were the more emotional, people-oriented aspects of a company's service -- facts such as problem solving, quick and effective response to questions, and feeling they could trust the company. These proved more important than the cheapest price, a track record of innovation, a user-friendly website, or being easy to contact.

So what's the difference between a performing company, and a truly amazing company? We distilled factors involved in shaping a strong customer experience into those that were highly valued, and widely used by suppliers, and those that were highly valued, but not generally used in the marketplace. We found that good companies cover the basics -- factors such as being easy to reach, having communications and services that are easy to use and always keeping to schedule. However, as mentioned above, it's the person-to-person factors such as valuing a customer's business, treating customers like individuals and having the same ethical standards as customers that really make the difference between a provider of an acceptable customer experience and a provider of an exceptional customer experience.

The game plan
So it seems pretty simple -- if the combination of brand reputation and employee-customer relationships can foster a strong enough emotional bond with customers on these levels, the goal is achieved. But how can we maintain loyal, engaged employees who are willing to put in the extra effort to strengthen their relationships with their individual clients.

As we can glean from personal experience, job satisfaction has a lot to do with how much engagement we have for, and how much effort we are willing to put into, a job. Our research took this further -- finding a strong and clear correlation between job satisfaction and the quality of the client experience an employee provides. Subjects who had high levels of satisfaction at work strongly believed that they provided an exceptional customer experience.

This correlation is particularly strong for job satisfaction features/employee experience factors such as "freedom to do what you think is necessary", "freedom to be yourself", "interesting work", "company with same ethics as I have", "highly regarded business" and "good colleagues to work with".

By boiling down the factors, we propose three categories of employee experience that amplify job satisfaction and customer experience. These are empowerment (I can make a difference), engagement (I am committed to the business) and reputation (I am proud to work here).

By offering their employees an exceptional experience along these three axes, companies will be statistically more likely to offer a strong client experience than those who do not.

The brand challenge
Our survey highlights how brand reputation flows through company-employee, employee-customer and customer-company relations to create a driving force that impacts everyone, but in different ways. We suggest that by fixing internal aspects of its brand a company can influence customer experience (as well as turnover) and thus the external embodiment of its brand reputation.

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