Customer experience: it’s more than social media and ‘touchpoints’

Last month I tried to buy software online. I knew what I wanted, but when I visited the provider’s website it was full of baffling options and unnecessary guff. So I bought a rival product. My second choice. It was easier.

Then, last week, I bought a television. I researched online, found a product page with all the necessary info and a simple payment method, so I bought it. Suitable follow-up email has encouraged me to go back and buy a printer.

In both cases the determining factor wasn’t the product, it was the experience.

Increasingly, digital customers know what they want by the time they engage with a brand (I did, I’d already done my research) so anything that hinders progress only encourages them to vote with their feet (or in my case, mouse) and look elsewhere.

Little surprise then that customer experience has been voted the ‘single most exciting opportunity in 2014′ by respondents to Econsultancy’s Digital Intelligence Briefing. If you substituted the words ‘most exciting opportunity’ for ‘thing vital for survival’ you’d be nearer the mark. In a world of high-quality products, rarely is the point of differentiation anything other than the ease with which the customer can get hold of the stuff.

“If last year was about recognising the importance of customer experience, 2014 is about actually doing something to make it happen,” says the briefing.

It goes on to talk about staging ‘compelling experiences’ to engage prospects and ‘personalising at scale’ to suit customers, but has this Econsultancy briefing (have I?) got too caught up in a customer’s experience on the way to the purchase phase? What about after that? What happens if, after I have used the product for several months, my opinion changes? How would that affect my relationship with the brand that supplied it?

Focusing too heavily on one or two factors, on customer ‘touchpoints’ when they interact with a brand on the way to a purchase, can lead to a distortion where customers are assumed to be happier with a brand than they actually are. Much more important, say The Harvard Business Review, is to focus on the bigger picture, the customer’s end-to-end journey.

“Think about a routine service event from the point of view of both the company and the customer,” says the Review.

“The company may receive millions of phone calls about the product and must handle each one well. But if asked about the experience months after the fact, a customer would never describe such a call as simply a ‘product question.’ Understanding the context of a call is key. A customer might have been trying to ensure uninterrupted service after moving, make sense of the renewal options at the end of a contract, or fix a nagging technical problem.

“A company that manages complete journeys would not only do its best with the individual transaction but also seek to understand the broader reasons for the call, address the root causes, and create feedback loops to continuously improve interactions upstream and downstream from the call.”

The Review said it’s research shows that firms that take care of the end-to-end journey benefit from enormous rewards including enhanced customer satisfaction, reduced churn, and increased revenue.

Looking solely at customer experience through to purchase, we’re inclined to ask what are the simple steps brands can take to improve their proposition but, as the Review suggests, this might not solve expensive overall problems like retaining prime customers and fending off appealing offers from rival firms.

How do you buy that kind of loyalty?

Some business are looking beyond the end of the sales process. Overall brand efficacy (as my colleague Alan adroitly points out) is quickly becoming a core feature of senior executive’s job descriptions in the UK. Companies are trying to ensure outcomes by understanding and responding to customers better, and that doesn’t mean just being their friend until the sale is made.

In the new digital economy, customers demand a stronger relationship with the brands they invest in during the purchase of a product. Now, the trick for the firms that sold me software and a TV is whether they can buy my loyalty with continuing good service.

On that, I suppose, we’ll just have to wait and see.