branded customer experienceWhile companies clamor to get their share of revenue from new and existing customers, the delta between what brands say they do for customers and what actually happens has never been larger. Perhaps it’s because of stats like: 90% of executives say that customer experience is central to their strategies, but a whopping 86% don’t expect to see a significant uplift in business results from it. See the math problem here? Too much brand-centered thinking and not enough customer-centric business management.

To get more insight on this disconnect, I sat down with Lynn Hunsaker, a customer experience expert who helps companies love and be loved by their customers, through her firms, ClearAction and Marketing Operations Partners. She should know a thing or two about this topic — she’s directed customer experience programs for 25 years with leadership roles at Fortune 500 companies.

Q: What are the biggest customer experience issues are these days?

A: The first problem is transparency — customers see behind the company’s motives — if there’s a gap between what they’re saying and what they’re doing, it’s harmful to the relationship.

The other big issue is that companies need to get it right the first time — as in don’t roll-out a product prematurely and don’t have surprises in your processes and policies. Brands with the best customer experience or service like Zappos, REI, Trader Joes, Nordstrom, Ritz Carlton, Adobe, Boeing, and American Express — they pay attention to their customers first and themselves second. Whether it’s B2C or B2B it makes no difference, the focus is on the customer, and that’s what matters.

Q: When companies don’t get it right, customers are taking to social these days to gripe about it and get action.

A: Yes, but “social media” tends to be rigidly defined as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other popular platforms. It should also includes online communities of other types, including online rating systems like Yelp, TripAdvisor, just to name just a few. In fact, the ratings mentality now permeates the psyche of every generation, from Millennials to Baby Boomers, empowering them to critique brands and be forthcoming with their opinions. Ultimately, though, what tends to happen with social media complaints is that companies try to resolve these very public criticisms by responding to it at a micro level.

Q: What does “micro level” problem solving in customer experience mean?

A: Companies resolve issues one customer at a time, one service rep at a time, or within a single department at a time — a quick fix and then move on to other priorities. If you really want to make a difference for all customers and for your brand’s revenue and profit growth, prevent issues from happening again altogether. That usually requires departments to work together to resolve the root causes of issues — that’s harder and takes longer, but it’s what’s needed to build trust that earns loyalty.

Another example of micro response to customers: when a customer complains on Twitter, it apologizes and tweets out the happy news to counteract the bad press caused on social media. Sure, it may appear that the problem is solved, but it’s really just a case by case response and a Band-Aid for a bigger problem. And when this “resolution” is over-the-top, like giving six complimentary movie passes to apologize for the theater snafu of two people, it really just masks an attempt to generate positive word-of-mouth. Again it’s about the brand, not the customer.

Q: So are customer surveys just a waste of time then?

A: Brands tend to use customer surveys as a barometer or a report card, hopefully with good news for their public relations department or to increase their Net Promoter ratings, showing how many customers would “recommend” the brand.

When a service rep or sales person tells a customer that a survey answer other than “highly satisfied” could ruin their bonus or performance assessment, yes, a survey is a waste of time and money for customers and the company. This situation happens because employees are penalized or rewarded too heavily on customer behavior instead of monitoring their own behavior internally.

Instead of looking at surveys as a one-by-one solution opportunity or a means to show how awesome your brand is, you can get more value by looking for patterns in it, as well as in other sources of feedback, like complaints on the 800 number, social media, or customer anecdotes — it’s really a collage of information that matters. These patterns help companies elevate the response to a macro-level, and that’s ultimately the goal. When you connect the feedback dots, you make things better for all customers, not just one at a time.

Q: Can companies turn their customer experience reputation around?

A: Absolutely. An example is Suntrust Bank, who saw the financial meltdown in 2008 as an opportunity to see how they could rebuild trust with their customers. One of the executives would often ask in meetings: “Are we deciding on this because we’ve been bankers for so many years, or because customers told us?” This question became a habit for managers across the company, and changed their decision-making to be customer-focused. This is the kind of habit more brands need to adopt.

Q: Sounds like there is hope. What do you see ahead for 2015?

A: Yes and no. Brands will be pushing harder on the customer experience manager to show business results. They’ll try to do this through more surveys, customer journey maps, social media, content marketing, customer engagement events and campaigns, and loyalty programs. Some companies, though, will disband their investment in customer experience altogether, getting rid of entire departments. For a lot of companies, it’s going to be business as usual mantra, with the mismatch between what the company says and what customers experience is.

Thankfully, there is that small group of companies — which is maybe a good thing since it’s easier to stand out from the crowd — that are going to step back and ask themselves: is what we’re doing more about us or customers? These companies will persistently seek patterns to resolve issues from happening again. They’ll earn trust and down the line business results by improving ease-of-doing-business for customers. In other words: it will be about the person buying their products, not the company, and that is what customer experience management is all about.

Written by Janice Cuban, Marketing Communications Consultant, Content Creator, Copywriter, and Freelance Writer. First published at http://JaniceCuban.com/blog/.

Photo purchased under license subscription from Shutterstock.

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