Improving customer experience on a shoestring

On a recent customer experience forum there was a discussion about how to start a customer-centricity initiative. The first posts on this discussion suggested beginning with introspection, rx particularly verifying that the leadership team was on board. The thinking behind this is that customer-centricity needs to be communicated as part of the business’ vision and values so that it becomes part of the company’s culture; and if this doesn’t happen, cough any initiative will ultimately fail.

Now while I agree with the sentiments involved – and in last week’s piece called ‘How to make customer experience a CEO agenda item’ I suggested an approach for doing this – at the same time it left me slightly depressed on two counts. Firstly by the instinctive response to becoming more customer-centric – essentially improving the experience delivered to customers – being internally rather than externally-oriented. Secondly by the fatalism: the idea that you couldn’t start improving the experience customers have (which has to be the purpose of customer-centricity) unless leadership was involved, capsule and certainly not enhance on a sustained basis.

The problem is that many leaders will not sign up for a big commitment unless they have evidence to supplement belief, so the must-have-leadership-on-board mindset creates a Catch-22 situation. But this can be broken if the thinking changes to accept that, in the first instance, improving the customer experience will need to be achieved through tactical low-cost initiatives, the success of which – both in customers’ and the business’ terms – provides the data to support more resources being committed.

In contrast with trying to make customer experience a strategic initiative, the starting point for any tactical initiative is a 100% focus on customers – understanding the truth about today, the current experience as customers perceive it. Before undertaking any research there are a number of ready-made and easily tapped, ‘voice of customer’ sources of that can be plumbed.

1. Interrogate the CRM system

The first source is the business’ CRM system, which should track complaints and service requests. Complaints highlight where the business is failing to get the basics right such as delivering late or incorrect products and quantities, defective quality, etc. The drivers of customer satisfaction and drivers of customer delight are different – delivering the wrong product will cause customers dissatisfaction but delivering the right one won’t generate delight – but it is impossible to delight customers unless there is a foundation of consistently reliable product and service quality.

Service requests provide a different perspective on how the experience can be improved – what can the business do so that customers do not need to make such requests. In customer service terms, the best service is no service – the customer does not have to take the time to call, the business needs less staff to receive the calls. Service requests highlight where the business can enhance service by being more proactive, ideally using automated processes and self-service.

Sometimes this will require an understanding of the reason behind the request, the starting point for which is garnering the insights of customer facing staff, typically sales and service staff (see 3 below).

2. Trawl the web for external sources

But before engaging with colleagues in front line roles (and incurring their time and costing the business), there are other sources of information that can be tapped. The CRM system should capture everything that is directly reported to the business, but not all comments made about the business are. Trawling through relevant blogs, social media sites and user forums will provide another layer of insight. As people are generally more likely to vent anger in such places rather than sing praises, any picture that emerges will typically be one sided. But given the starting point has to be getting the basics right, this bias is helpful (so long as it is acknowledged).

Together, these passive data sources should enable the development of some hypotheses as to how well the business is performing on the threshold criteria that customers expect to be met, and how the business can go above and beyond just meeting these hygiene factors. The way to start testing these hypotheses is to engage with other staff in the business.

3. Capture ‘voice of customer’ comments

Even if the CRM system ‘should’ capture all valuable comments made to the business, this is frequently not the case – typically there are some insightful observations that have evaded collection. Fortunately these are the ones that are most likely to stick

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in the memories of those who heard them. So much of this insight can be retrieved by asking all staff in front-line roles (anyone who has any interactions with customers such as sales, support or delivery personnel) to attend a brief workshop and communicate anything they have been told about the service the business provides, in as close to verbatim form as possible and by whom (workshops are better than individual conversation, as in a group comprising of people with similar roles, one comment tends to trigger others.) To ensure veracity, any comments that have significant implications should be verified with the customer concerned.

Next week’s piece will explain how to undertake some customer research in low cost, effective ways. But many of the insights will be sufficiently self-evident as to not require further testing so the process of improving the experience can begin.

4. Identify the moments of truth and start there

When it comes to taking action, being realistic about what can be achieved is critical. Without the support of the CEO, the ability to change the behaviours of all functions that impact the customer experience is limited. Some customer experience enhancements are likely to require fundamental changes in working practices of internally-oriented functions so these will be difficult to achieve.

The best way to focus on the critical few interactions where improving the experience will have the greatest impact, is identifying the moments of truth. These are the instances when a customer has a high level of emotion invested in the outcome because it will potentially result in high levels of pain or pleasure. For example, arranging an emergency delivery because the customer forgot to place an order and its production line would otherwise have to stop; or enabling a passenger to make a connection that will get them home for a special event.

Trying to delight as part of normal business has its risks as it creates a heightened expectation for next time. Also, if ‘the delighter’ has been copied by competitors, it will no longer be a differentiator and may have increased costs to no financial or strategic benefit. Seeking to delight as part of business-as-usual is fine, so long as the enhancement is relatively low cost to implement, easy to sustain and unlikely to be copied. But for business-as-usual interactions, avoiding dissatisfaction should be the priority.

A far less risky strategy is seeking to delight in exceptional circumstances – those moments of truth where the customer is frequently in a high state of stress. These circumstances may arise either because of an unforeseeable event or because either the business or the customer has messed up. Even if the business has caused the problem, such incidents present an opportunity to delight. Every business makes mistakes, what separates customer experience champions from the rest is how they deal with such situations – apologising, resolving quickly and informing about the changes made to avoid it happening again. Just focusing on these occasions – really understanding how they are best dealt with – will have a very significant impact on customers’ perceptions.

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About Jack Springman

I am a consultant with experience in business strategy and customer strategy development, customer management and customer service transformation.