By Frederik Wiedemann
Do these issues sound familiar?
Our customer satisfaction rate is low or declining despite increases in service investments.
Our customers do not feel a consistent brand experience across platforms and channels.
We have insufficient and superficial contact with our key customers.
Most companies struggle to service their customers in ways that are swift, thoughtful, and consistent. What’s not working? Why do companies like Zappos or Apple have great customer service while others can’t seem to master it?
Globalization has created more customers and more ways to interact with customers
Points of contact between companies and customers have multiplied over the years. Globalization has created scores of new customers and new ways of engaging with those customers. It has also created more competitive pricing, which has in turn increased the need for service and added value, which will attract customers and keep them engaged while also providing new sources of revenue or supporting higher prices.
The internet and widespread access to digital content has also diversified the ways companies interact with people and has increased the number of people who can experience or interact with a brand. From a human perspective, people want more control and freedom to explore, and increased consumer confidence and more options have changed their traditional decision-making processes.
These kinds of issues lead to low customer satisfaction and a messy brand perception. Companies need to be more adept at creating an outward-looking strategy. Confusion about product portfolios takes place when companies develop multiple local versions of their products and services and local marketing—often encouraged by incentives. But there’s a significant cost for a company in added complexity. For example, in a project with a health-care device manufacturer, we found that customers and end-users (and the manufacturer themselves) struggled with lack of overview because every product team would create a new name and individualized storytelling around the product. Consequently the company’s portfolio was crammed with high-profile product lines that had no coherent story or basis of comparison. The result: retailers and doctors got confused about the product portfolio because each had a different story and value proposition. In contrast, all car models from Volkswagen are versions of a single product line (Golf, Passat, etc.); all product lines are named after winds; and at the core of the brand is a story of German quality.
How to create an integrated approach to the customer experience
Unless you know what your customers want and need it will be difficult to build a strong and integrated approach to your brand.
We often use a model for evaluating the customer experience, whether it’s a concert, a shopping trip, or a training course. While the focal point of the experience with a brand is the “engagement” phase (see graphic below) companies and especially individual employees often underestimate or overlook the value of the phases before and after the engagement.
he model can help companies identify gaps between the company’s current offering and customer expectations and needs. Often companies underestimate the importance of the Entry, Exit, and Extension phases while spending too many resources on other phases. So the model can clarify the potential for saving money while improving the overall experience.
There are a lot of opportunities and pain points here that companies need to consider. In the preliminary “attraction” phase we found that best-practice companies activate awareness by putting offerings in a meaningful context and by leaving room for exploration and identification.
Best-practice companies activate their customers’ awareness by putting offerings in a context and leaving room for exploration and identification.
- Recognize how your customers’ search for information and knowledge has changed.
- Build new ways to facilitate conversations about your offerings.
- Reconsider which marketing channels ensure high effectiveness in the initial phases.
Example: T-Mobile’s Liverpool Street Station Dance. This innovative marketing concept, a viral movie, shows a seemingly spontaneous crowd event that illustrates the service promise on several levels: “Life is for sharing.”
Best-practice companies emphasize the importance of customers’ first real interaction (online or offline) with the brand.
- Ensure front-line employees are motivated and aligned around customer needs.
- Clean up digital mess and create customer-friendly entry points.
- Turn waiting time into meaningful time.
Example: First Direct. The online bank First Direct, a division of the HSBC Bank, treats all its customers as key accounts. Customers are not passed from one person to another but get to talk to the same representative on the phone, which enhances customer satisfaction and reduces the cost of resolving customer problems. In this way, First Direct gets to know more about its customers’ expectations and can translate that information into new services.
Best-practice companies always deliver on all basic promises and maintain high quality standards throughout the experience.
- Reduce creative gimmicks that are not in line with the core concept.
- Maintain focus on reliability and efficiency.
- Create strong synergies between online and offline channels.
Example: IKEA. The shopping experience at IKEA is carefully designed to offer suggestions and provide help while respecting customers who want to explore and shop on their own. Customers are invited to consider additional purchases without experiencing any pressure from the employees.
Best-practice companies handle the exit of the experience as the beginning of a long and profitable relationship.
- Make exits smooth and hassle-free to minimize customer frustration.
- Make customers feel they are wanted back.
- Ensure employees can and are motivated to capture relevant customer insights.
Example: Hyundai Assurance. When buying a Hyundai in these times of financial uncertainty, customers can decide whether they want to finance or lease it through the Hyundai Assurance scheme, which lets them return the car free of charge if they lose their job, etc. This provides certainty for customers when they “leave the shop” and at the same time initiates a post-purchase financial relationship with the customers.
Best-practice companies learn from previous experiences.
- Structure and leverage the captured customer insights.
- Lead customer orientation among employees across divisional lines.
- Invite employees to foster and share new product or service improvements.
Example: Apple’s post-product line up. Thanks to integrated solutions, clever marketing, and a strong, consistent brand, Apple users find it natural and easy to enhance and expand their product experience by shopping for more at iTunes, the iPhone App Store, and the well-designed universe of special Mac accessories. Peer-to-peer recommendations and gift giving is part of this expansive dynamic.
Build a service blueprint to clarify the areas that matter most
So now that you know which areas need attention, how do you figure out how to deliver the best possible customer experience?
You can start by developing a blueprint that visually depicts and illuminates the front-stage points of contact (when employees interact with customers) and the back-stage (behind the scenes) processes and technologies that are needed to drive the customer experience. Here’s how a hotel experience could look:
It’s relatively easy for most companies to map which elements of an experience are performed front-stage and which are performed back-stage. But because no single division or function owns the entire customer experience, service blueprinting can help identify overly demanding or complicated touch points during which internal functions overlap.
Adding more touch points to make the experience unique poses a great challenge because you need to integrate those points into the total experience: every time you add a touch point you raise expectations and increase areas where you may potentially fail to deliver. So in respect to touch points, you may want to apply Toyota’s general and very successful principle of “excluding gimmicks and pursuing the essentials.”
A few years ago we used this service-based blue printing process to reprioritize the packaging process for a health care company, and discovered ways to save the company around €50 million while improving quality and the customer experience. The company previously spent a great deal of money on fancy packaging design. Using the blueprint model we tracked the journey of multiple products from warehouse to hospital to patient and found that by the time a product got anywhere near patients the packaging was long gone. The product’s outer packaging was stripped off upon arrival and the product was transferred to a department where nurses recommend products but never see the packaging. Nurses arranged products according to their own system because the physical product didn’t contain the relevant information on the inner packaging.
Consequently, the company simplified their outer packaging and moved the relevant product details to the redesigned inner packaging, which created a massive savings in production costs while improving the customer and end-user experience.
3 guiding principles for improving customer experiences
What might seem an obvious move in practice is difficult to execute. Redesigning and enhancing the customer experience typically involves multiple management areas: communication, customer service, front-stage training and execution, internal systems and processes, IT and technology, and KPIs.
Before making changes to improve the customer experience, executives and managers should keep focus on their core promises and follow three guiding principles:
- Know your key customers and put extra effort into understanding their values—great customer experiences should focus on the most profitable customers.
- Successfully integrated experiences require a collectively owned agenda that works across internal functions and channels—no function can own the entire customer experience.
- Great customer experiences require active leadership—execution is the hardest part of creating great customer experiences, and leaders must incentivize employees who put customers first.
Frederik Wiedemann is a partner at ReD Associates
 Bitner, Ostrom, and Morgan, “Service Blueprinting: A Practical Tool for Service Innovation,” 2007.
 Barwise, Patrick & Seàn Meehan: “Simply Better,” Harvard Business Press, 2004.