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Customer experience: Doing nothing can work, except when it doesn't

A positive customer experience does not just happen; it requires planning, effort, and -- most importantly -- a willingness to focus on customers.

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This is another in my continuing series of guest posts to put some of the foremost experts and smarter thinkers in front of you.

Let me introduce you, once again, to Rich Toohey. Rich, if you remember, has graced these "pages" before (see here for his post on omnichannel) back when he was VP of Marriott Rewards for (what else?) Marriott International. He is now a consultant/adviser/thought leader in the customer experience space making his way into the upper echelons of thinkers. He calls his company, rather elegantly I think, Resolvere Insights LLC, Their focus is one that is near and dear to my heart: developing strategies and programs for loyalty, customer experience and customer engagement. Pretty, pretty, pretty good.

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The thing about Rich is that not only has he had deep history and extensive skills required to make all this work, but he articulates things really well. In this particular post, he describes how to organize your company's thinking about the customer experience and the customer's experiences that you are delivering as a company.

I'm gonna let him say the rest. Rich, take it away.

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If you're a film fan, you may recall the scene from Forrest Gump where a man asks Forrest for help creating a bumper sticker slogan. Forrest obliges during one of his famous runs, inspiring the man (at least fictionally) to create the phrase, "S___ Happens". The gist of the slogan speaks to the randomness of life. However, that sentiment does not work as a business strategy, especially when considering the customer experience delivered by an organization.

This film scene came to mind following a poor service interaction with a national cable provider that left me thinking that their service strategy must be predicated on hope (never a good plan). After a call center rep tried unsuccessfully to remotely fix an issue with our non-ringing (really) home phone line, a service appointment was scheduled for a 2-hour time window later in the week. When asked what phone number the technician should call 30 minutes before arrival, I shared my mobile number ... since our home phone line was the problem. So far, the process appeared reasonable. Fast forward to the scheduled service date, specifically 15 minutes before the end of our appointment time slot; I had not heard from a technician so I contacted their call center. I was told the technician called our home phone number - not my requested mobile number - and when no one answered (the non-ringing phone), he concluded we weren't home and moved on. Wrong. Turns out this customer experience resembled Forrest's bumper sticker.

Customer experience as a discipline has received quite a bit of attention the past few years and for good reason. A customer's view of a brand, including future purchases, loyalty, and advocacy, is largely determined by the experience they perceive. Furthermore, innovation and competition have combined to create an astounding number of choices for consumers' product or service needs. The result is that more organizations are realizing the importance of delivering thoughtfully designed experiences (even for everyday interactions like my repair situation) that actually work for their customers ... and seeing the lost business impact of not doing so. One other customer experience reality organizations must heed: customers now regularly compare the experience delivered by an organization not just to a top competitor in their category, but to that delivered by the very best organization, regardless of industry.

How do organizations deliver an outstanding customer experience? The recipe starts with a plan centered around knowing and acting on customer perceptions and needs. Specific ingredients can include journey mapping, to identify what works well and what doesn't from the perspective of actual customers who have interacted with an organization; voice-of-the-customer process metrics to monitor (and correct when necessary) delivery effectiveness; and prescriptive training supplemented with periodic reinforcement to ensure front-line employees understand what to do and why it matters to customers. For instance, actually following contact instructions provided by the customer.

Fortunately, two more recent, though equally ordinary, service interactions offer a positive contrast to my cable 'experience'. The first involved a replacement refrigerator purchase from a national retailer. After an extensive search for a mid-sized unit with the best combination of price, features, and delivery (plus old-unit removal), we decided on a specific model. The website purchase was very straightforward including choosing a 2-hour appointment slot on a delivery date (must ... remain ... calm). The last process-step asked for my choice (email, phone, or SMS) of how to be notified 30 minutes prior to delivery. I selected SMS notification and provided my mobile number. Finally, I used their chat function to answer a question about hauling away the old refrigerator. Purchase complete. My fingers were crossed on the scheduled delivery date though there was no need for concern; 30 minutes before arrival (and in the middle of the 2-hour appointment window), I received a text that the truck was on route. The delivery truck arrived, two men wheeled in the new appliance and removed the old. A customer experience without friction ... the way it should be ... easy!

The second interaction example occurred while having dinner at our favorite local family-run Greek restaurant. Of course, the food is fabulous although it's the overall experience, including the relationship the family creates with customers, that makes this restaurant stand out. The owners are natural hosts who connect with regulars (like us) and first-timers alike. Perhaps more importantly, they've ingrained key service behaviors in their staff through training and on-going feedback. Their well-thought-out service approach concentrates on seemingly small steps that together, make a difference to customers. For instance, warmly greeting customers upon arrival; serving each table water, fresh bread, and dipping oil immediately after customers are seated; and having staff acknowledge customer requests by answering "my pleasure" (rather than the ubiquitous "no problem"). Each action reinforces that the staff appreciates us and our business as well as helps create a positive overall visit impression. This last point is critical as customer experience is all about customers' perception and the most important aspect of any interaction is the feeling imparted. The attention to service details support an enjoyable customer experience - and keeps us coming back.

Although the service interactions described were all relatively routine, each illustrated significant attributes of a positive customer experience: processes that are connected and frictionless; offering choices, then acting on the preference; focusing on delivery consistency, even for process details; and demonstrating customer appreciation. These interactions also serve as reminders that a positive customer experience does not just happen; it requires planning, effort, and most importantly, a willingness to focus on customers. And while doing nothing can sometimes be the right approach, simply allowing a customer experience to happen without any consideration is the wrong approach ... and likely results in the type of experience where Forrest would say, "It happens."

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If you want to reach Rich, feel free to email him at rich@resolvereinsights.com