The Experience Economy

Marketing Insights, the AMA

Providing great customer experiences at every digital touchpoint can be a real challenge for brands, especially while many still struggle to define where their customers are in the digital space.

With access to endless streams of information right at their fingertips, today’s customers are more empowered now than ever before. But providing great customer experiences at every digital touch point can be a real challenge for brands, especially while many still struggle to define where their customers are in the digital space and the best ways to connect with them. According to a 2011 Global Customer Experience Peer Research Panel Online Survey conducted by Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., improving online customer experiences tops the list: 77% of participants viewed it as a major objective of their company’s 2012 customer experience program. While many brands are still learning the best ways to reach and engage their multi-channel customers and creating a strategy to provide the best experience at every touch point, the question remains: What’s the best way to tackle customer service in the digital age? As consumers continue to have an unprecedented access to information and the digital landscape continues to evolve at a rapid pace, brands need to be customer service experts across every channel—from e-mail to social to mobile and beyond—and can’t afford to miss a beat. To help with this ongoing challenge, here are 10 tactics for improving your digital customer experiences.

1) Remember that a digital customer experience is still a customer experience.

Despite the increasingly widening focus on digital, marketers should remember to look at the overall customer experience. Customers’ core needs come first, followed by actually figuring out how you’re going to meet them. “Digital customer experience is customer experience,” says Michael Hinshaw, managing director of customer experience consultancy McorpCX  and author of Smart Customers, Stupid Companies: Why Only Intelligent Companies Will Thrive, and How to Be One of Them. “There is still, in some organizations, the concept that digital customer experience is just that—that it’s digital customer experience. But without having a cohesive customer experience strategy, it’s difficult to deliver a customer experience strategy that’s consistent with other channels. Digital customer experience has to be designed from the context of overall customer experience.”

2) Define your goals and objectives with digital.

One of the most important steps in improving digital customer experience is to clearly define what customers expect from your brand and in what ways your customers are going to use a particular digital channel. “Many companies build websites—they build mobile [platforms]—because everyone is building mobile, but they don’t think about the context of the customers’ utilization of that channel. So you have to understand not only your business objectives, you have to really crisply define what your customers expect out of it and how to give it to them,” Hinshaw says.

3) Understand your consumers’ customer service expectations.

In order to provide a better digital experience, companies need to make sure that they meet and exceed their customers’ expectations. This starts with a clear understanding of what their customers are expecting from the experience. “Any experience—digital experience, in-store experience, customer experience as a discipline—is driven by the fact that all of us as consumers, as business buyers, come into any given situation with an expectation of what’s going to happen,” Hinshaw says. “If you have an expectation going into an interaction, and that expectation is unmet, then the experience is going to be poor. If the experience aligns with your expectations or exceeds your expectations, then the experience is going to be good. So, when you design a digital experience, you have to do it with a clear understanding of what your customers expect and do that in the context of what your business objectives are.”

4) Use research to step inside your customers’ environments.

According to Kerry Bodine, co-author of Outside In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business, one of the things that gets overlooked most by companies when they are designing any kind of experience is research. Therefore, many brands don’t have a deep understanding of what their customers really want and need. “We are accustomed as a business community to do things like surveys. We’ll look at some operational data, maybe some online stats or existing stats from an existing app, but those types of things are good indicators of maybe what’s broken or what a particular need is, but they’re not great indicators of really how an experience should be designed,” she says. “And oftentimes, they will tell you some things that customers need, but there are often these latent, undiscovered needs that are there that you just can’t get at with a survey.”

Bodine advises observing customer behavior in a natural setting. “One of the things that I recommend to people is that they go out and do ethnographic research with their customers. Go to their homes or their businesses or to the shopping mall, the auto dealership or wherever it is they’re doing business with you to understand really what their behaviors and attitudes are. Observe them, talk with them one-on-one to get to a deeper level of insight than is possible with a survey or even a focus group that is contained within an artificial setting.” But, she adds, many businesses often want to overlook this step. “It’s seen as a cost, it’s seen as a time suck. And yes, it does cost money and it does take time, but my argument is always that, ‘Whatever you invest in that upfront ethnographic research is going to pay for itself tenfold’ because you’re going to be that much more confident that you’re actually developing an experience or developing a new piece of functionality or a new digital product that actually meets consumer needs and it’s something that people are actually going to use. And something that’s actually going to generate money,” Bodine says.

5) Get outside help when you need it.

When marketers are immersed in the details, it’s difficult to see the big picture. It may be surprising to find out how few companies actually make the customer the center of the decision process. Arlington-Va.-based business insights firm, CEB, surveyed nearly 800 marketers at Fortune 1000 companies and found that, on average, just 11% of marketers depend on data for all customer-related decisions. “What that means is customers don’t have a voice in what companies are doing to meet their needs. So that ‘outside in’ perspective is a critical piece of that,” says Hinshaw. “That means if you want to meet your customers’ needs with a digital experience, you need to be able to walk a mile in their shoes to be able to interact with your company through digital channels as if you were a customer.” Hinshaw suggests companies bring in someone who is an expert at designing digital experiences and knows how to do so from the context of the broader customer experience. “We’ve seen and there have been several studies [that show]that organizations that bring in outside help to help them in digital experiences, or with experiences in general, have significantly greater return on the investment because it does a better job of meeting needs,” he says. “The fact is that it’s very difficult for companies to look at the experience from the ‘outside in.’”

6) Be transparent with your customers.

Transparency has become a hot-button topic recently. While marketers are swimming in deeps pools of data—asking themselves what to do with all of it and how to use it—it’s important for companies to be transparent about what they’re collecting, why they’re collecting it and what they’re going to do with it. According to Macala Wright, a Los Angeles-based business and strategy consultant for retail, “The biggest thing around data is consumer rights and privacy. I think that it’s OK to use data to improve services for your customers, but you have to be very transparent about how you’re using it, what it does, what you’re using it for and what the benefit is to them. If you’re clear with them, most people are willing to give it to you.”

7) Treat unsolicited customer feedback like it matters (because it does).

Feedback not only gives your customers a voice, but it can help your business better understand how to tailor and improve upon customer experiences. There’s a wealth of information filtering in from multi-channel customers all of the time, even when it’s not petitioned. “Customers are providing all of this unsolicited feedback to companies all the time,” Bodine says. “They’re calling the call center or they’re sending an e-mail to customer support or they’re out on a social media network or they’re providing a product review on a third-party site, and so companies need to learn how to effectively mine all of those different parts of the full picture of the customer feedback, all that unsolicited data. There are a lot of tools out there; technology companies have sprung up to help companies make sense of that data, both to collect it and do things like natural language processing and sentiment analysis and things like that. That is a critical part that companies need to be looking at.”

8) Create unified messages across all digital platforms.

As customers are connecting with brands in ways that they never could before in digital, this presents great opportunities for both the customer and business. In order to get the most out of creating effective digital touch points, it’s important to create what Forrester calls, “a unified customer experience,” by creating consistent brand messaging across fractured channels. Hinshaw says that the digital customer experience shouldn’t be looked at in a silo. “Today’s consumer and business buyer, both—they don’t look at the world through the lens of a digital channel versus center channel. They’re going to bounce from digital to phone to in-store to sales rep and back again,” he says. “So, if you think about digital the same way you might look at call center channel, you’re not going to think about a call center channel without thinking about how people are going to call in.”

9) Fit technology to your customers’ needs.

According to Bodine, one mistake a lot of companies make is putting the technology ahead of their customers’ needs. “I think a lot of people put the technology first and that’s kind of natural because the technology is really sexy and everyone gets really excited about it. But if that’s your approach, you’re just going to be running around like a chicken with its head cut off trying to figure out some way to attach the latest thing to you and then detach whatever the previous thing was that’s no longer popular. Instead, you could say, ‘OK, what do you really want to do and how could we really add value into their lives?’”

10) Study emerging digital trends.

Finding new ways to connect and engage with customers—especially millennials—is vital for improving digital customer service. “Companies that want to stay relevant are going to need to figure out ways to integrate these new apps, these new destinations into what they’re doing,” Hinshaw says “Millennials, like all of us, want to be spoken to and connect with brands in a way that we choose, not the way that the brands choose.” According to Hinshaw, marketers need to ask themselves how they plan to leverage new digital platforms to engage with consumers without being intrusive.

This was originally published in the January/February 2014 issue of Marketing Insights.

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