When Brent Wees suggested we put on a customer experience workshop at Digital Dealer 25, I jumped at the opportunity. With so much energy and so many resources poured into getting customers to come to the dealership, all that can be washed away by a negative experience (download a copy of our customer experience workbook, if you’re feeling saucy). Since we had less than an hour to cover our strategy brief template and ways to measure success, we didn’t have much time to explore some of the supporting topics that help businesses maximize their resources on a minimal budget. While I already covered ROI vs. ROMI, let me offer some thoughts on maximizing customer experience based on the customers’ expectations.
When we hear an example of customer experience, it’s usually followed by an example of some international juggernaut of business. Apple, Disney, Nordstrom, and Ritz Carlton are almost all universally mentioned as companies leading the way in terms of creating an immersive, customer-forward, environment. Odds favor that you, my beloved reader, are not leading the charge at one of these companies. You probably don’t have billion-dollar budgets to spend, Ivy League MBAs to deploy it, or multiple locations that are best suited to your clientele, either. I’m here to tell you, it’s OK.
If you’ve ever sat through a training session or presentation of mine, I tend to use a lot of food and restaurant examples. After all, when I go around the room and ask “who here eats,” everybody raises their hand. It’s a simple way to level the playing field, along with discovering who is an android. As a training exercise, I ask participants to think about their favorite place to go out to eat, and then try to channel those feelings into how they interact with their clients. My theory is that if you’ve never experienced amazing customer service, how would you know what it looks like? While my little survey is simple, the results are very telling. When you ask it hundreds of times, it’s starting to get real interesting.
What I’ve found is that the “best experience” is totally relative to the person who answers the question. More often than not, the favorite places to eat are local establishments, rarely the most expensive ones. Those who have answered the question, are comforted by the regional cuisine, the like-minded staff, and the familiar ambiance. Those in more rural locals have radically different expectations than those who live in more affluent areas. When those positions are switched, all parties are shaken by what attracts the opposite. Those who crave chicken fried steak are put off by a raw quail’s egg and vice versa. Any and all of those places to eat can have a five-star rating by those who eat there. But, what about those who don’t?
What if a customer’s best dining experience took place at an Applebee’s?
As we craft plans to evolve our customer experience efforts, we must keep in mind what the customer is attracted to on a day-to-day basis. The Apple/Disney/Nordstrom/Ritz experience may not resonate with your market because your market may not have any firsthand knowledge of those places. Apple has steadily moved from a tech company to a lifestyle brand. Taking the family to Disney can cost as much as a reliable used car. Nordstrom sells jeans that can be an entire paycheck for some. The only thing more expensive than staying at a Ritz is eating at a Ritz. Personally speaking, as a blue-collar kid from Cornfield County, doing business with these companies still comes with a bit of a jolt. Many businesses overcommit resources to a customer experience that can be wholly unappreciated by those who they routinely serve.
I’m not saying that there isn’t anything that can be taken away from what these organizations do. Having strict design standards, commitment to total customer delight, offering lifetime benefits, and offering a chilled flute of Krug champagne is a nice touch. But, what if Moët champagne would work? Maybe Asti? What if you’re in a dry county? Maybe a Coke would be even more appreciated? The philosophies are sound, but blindly mimicking these organizations can be financially disastrous.
When you decide to make that do-or-die commitment to enhancing customer experience, it’s critical to take a measured approach. Instead of thinking about how much it’s going to cost, put that notion aside for a bit. We know it’s going to cost money, but there are actually more important things, first of which, is your location. That’s right, the place where all of this imaginary customer experience is going to take place. Walk outside and look around the building. Is there a St. Regis hotel nearby? A Tiffany & Company? Probably not. So, those exquisite Le Corbusier knock-off chairs will likely go utterly unappreciated in your showroom. Think about what type of ambiance the customer will feel comfortable in. It’s the Third Place that Starbucks talks about. Will people remember the La Marzocco espresso machine in the service lounge, or the crumbling and yellowed drop ceiling in the finance office?
Next, think about the people who will be executing your customer experience strategy. Then, the people after them. Then, their replacements. The collective identities of your employees will have a profound impact on the customer experience, which is obvious to most. However, what doesn’t get taken into consideration is how to maintain a customer experience strategy throughout multiple generations of team members. As employee turnover runs rampant, how do you ensure the next person is able to handle their role? More importantly, what type of person do you consistently find applying for open positions? As the customer experience strategy is being built, employee composition MUST be considered in an objective way. If the current group can’t realize the strategy, it’s probably too complicated or far-fetched. If a solid, goals-based, structure isn’t put in place from the word “go,” hiring your way to success is likely to become a protracted and expensive failure.
Finally, let’s consider the money. The aforementioned titans of customer service have a comparatively infinite budget to most small businesses. Moreover, they didn’t reach their status overnight. It took decades of constant investment to reach those levels. It’s so indelible now, that it’s just part of the budget, no longer a simple initiative. No one flips a million dollar switch to make customers explode with glee. On the flip-side, exemplary customer service isn’t free. If it was, you would already have it.
This takes us to the title. A balanced approach to customer experience takes into account the psychological, geographic, and demographic variables of your organization’s core customers. The polished granite fireplace and techno music in the showroom can, and often do, fall on blind eyes and deaf ears. In fact, it can be a turnoff, adding to the uneasiness of making a purchase. The UFO-that-just-landed-in-a-parking-lot dealership your manufacturer wants you to build is more likely to be more off-putting than an actual UFO in a parking lot to the Walmart set (They Might Be Giants spell this phenomenon out beautifully in their classic tune “Man It’s So Loud in Here”). You might get lucky making a sale, but if people don’t feel welcome, they’re not likely to come back.
You can still have exemplary customer service without being mentioned in business school lecture halls. By taking the time to understand your customers on a personal level, businesses can craft an atmosphere that is comfortable enough for that customer to absorb the desired experience. Take cues from the customers who like you just the way you are. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is customer experience.