Building the Customer Experience

Do what you do so well that they will want to see it again and bring their friends. -WALT DISNEY

How Social Media Engagement Enhances the Overall Customer Experience.

Written By: Ronald Foster - Oct• 23•12

We can look at social media first by focusing on traditional methods of communication. Traditional media including radio, television and magazines implemented one-way, static messages ideal for viewing and not responding. Traditional advertising methods required the business to get space in newspapers, magazines or create a television commercial. These were expensive and their impact could not be easily measured.

Web and mobile technology has made it easy for anyone to create online content and distribute it to audiences online for free. This reduces the cost of advertisement as you, as a company, do not have to part with large sums of money to have your ads published. What’s more, distribution is almost instant.

Social media comes in many forms: reference sites (Wikipedia),blogs, micro blogs (twitter), social networks (Facebook), discussion forums, social bookmarking and voting sites(Digg), virtual worlds (Second life) and media sharing sites (YouTube), which are vital in enhancing the customer experience. These are visited by millions of people around the world every day and your business is sure to reach many people in a short time. As we speak, it is very probable that your customers and competitors are already using social media.

The first strategy to focus on is monitoring. Customers and competitors are out there on the web talking about your business or products. Giving a response or taking part in the conversation will build a sense of trust and confidence they have in you. Before you respond to any questions or provide information, you need to know what they are talking about, where it is being said, and who is talking about it. Tools abound on the web which search for your name, business name or product. Set up an account on your RSS feeder reader and monitor the feeds daily. Such tools include Technorati search, Google news search and Social Mention just to mention a few. Through this, you will be able to get complaints about your products, get suggestions on how to improve and what they love about your products. You can also find out what people say about your competitor products. This will put you ahead of competition, while providing customers with what they want.

Once you have discovered the information, you will need to respond. The response must be well timed and planned. Responses will show the potential customers that you are concerned and you can listen. This goes a long way to make them build trust in you.

In summary, posting information through social media portrays the human side of your business. It  also allows for two way conversations between you and the customer thus encouraging interactivity, connection and feedback from potential customers. The use of social networking sites enables customers to connect directly with the people in your business making them feel recognized, respected and welcomed. After all, isn’t that how we want to feel?

Building a Customer Experience Team

Written By: Ronald Foster - Aug• 09•12

Recently a question came across my desk from a local business.

In the email the author explained that he had been tasked with spearheading the customer experience improvement initiative at his company. Things were moving along well, or so he thought, until he heard the words… “Our department does not interact face-to-face with the customer.” From there the ensuing conversation was filled with the many reasons (excuses) about why the IT department should be excluded from the project.

The question to me was simply this… “How can I get buy-in from all departments?”

Great question! In our hurry up and get it done business climate we can easily find ourselves over worked and over whelmed. It is a natural reaction to remove oneself from any area that changes the daily routine.

For an answer to the inquiry we can begin by looking at Dr. Demming’s 14 Points of Management. Point #9 (Break Down Barriers Between Departments) discusses internal customers. Now many will argue that this is intended for a manufacturing environment but I disagree. Let me explain.

A customer is anyone who has an expectation of you or your department.

Those on my staff, for example, are my customers. (And a great group of customers at that!) They expect clear direction from me and to be empowered to make the decisions necessary to carry out the tasks before them. They also expect feedback from me. If they fail because I have not provided clear direction and feedback, or have micro-managed their performance in any way, then I have failed them.

The answer to the question is this.

The success of the Customer Experience project is dependent on all departments within the organization. There is no One Person or One Department that can accomplish it alone. The Customer Experience Manager is dependent upon the IT department to provide the information management systems necessary to track the progress made. These systems must provide relevant, prompt and accurate data. Without these systems in place, the project is likely to fail. There are many other ways an IT department plays a role. Each touch point in the customer experience must be broken down and examined in order to improve.

For an example of a company whose IT department gets it, take a look at Disney.

Long lines rarely add to the customer experience. However, when in a line on a Disney property the customer is entertained. Disney has enhanced the customer experience during this frustrating time with videos relevant to the experience the customer is in line waiting for. The customer (or Guest at Disney) is often so focused on the video that they walk through the line without realizing they are walking. (Don’t believe me? Sit back and watch the guests in a line at Disney World sometime.) Before the customer realizes it they are on the ride.

The Call for Action.

The customer experience is every team member’s job. From those who sweep the floors to those in the “C-Suite,” from the new hire to the old-timer. Customers go where they are welcomed and stay where they are appreciated.

It’s time to call out the welcoming committee!

Do you have a question about improving the customer experience at your organization? E-mail me at questions@the-customer-experience.com along with your contact information.

Small Steps Toward A Happier Customer

Written By: Ronald Foster - Jul• 25•12

The smallest personal touch may be the one that convinces a customer to tell their friends. What single act can your organization do today to improve the customer experience?

Leaving a Lasting Impression with Online Reputation Management

Written By: Ronald Foster - Dec• 30•11

Like it or not, we are now all members of the technology age. Some of us have jumped into this era with enthusiasm and excitement about the opportunities the World Wide Web has to offer us as entrepreneurs. Still others have been hesitant and reluctant to expose their companies, and themselves, to a loss of privacy and control. We have also struggled with the issues of producing an online presence that represented our companies professionally and provided an easy to use platform for our clients.

As the pressure mounted for companies to establish an online presence, software and security companies scrambled for ways to preserve user privacy and at the same time, make it easier for business owners to create and load attractive, effective, web sites. Today, estimates on Yahoo suggest that more than 65% of all businesses in the United States have active websites.

In the last few years, the technology has taken on a more social side. Instead of relying just on an impersonal, albeit attractive and easy-to-use website, business owners are now spreading the word about their companies and their products through a myriad of social networks like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc.  These sites allow owners to interact directly with their clients and be more “in the moment” with them. Business owners can provide updates in a timely manner and even introduce new products and special deals without spending a dime on advertizing—clients even help by clicking “like” and sharing the businesses’ pages with others, thereby spreading the word about the business exponentially.  Blogs and tweets are cropping up all over the place. These are yet another way to spread the word about the merits of different products and addressing customer questions in a public forum.

All of this amazing, cost-effective advertising should leave you confident that you have done everything possible to attract and keep new customers, and to keep existing customers content—but don’t let your guard down yet. There are a few key things to be aware of before you launch your company online:

  • The layout should be eye-catching with some white space so that features stand out
  • There should be navigational tools that assist viewers in getting from one place to another easily and logically
  • The grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure should be flawless
  • Pages should load quickly

Without attention to these things, your professional reputation may be shot before you make your first sale. While there are business owners with the skills needed to produce a professional web presence, most will benefit from the services of an Online Reputation Management (ORM) professional.

If you look closely at your competitors’ websites you may discover that while some are excellent, others are less than professional, and some are just an embarrassment. The thing that some business owners miss—especially those that don’t have a professional managing their online reputation—is that this website, or blog, or tweet, represents them and their companies. In fact, a website may be the only exposure your client has to your company. People will look elsewhere if the information on your site is hard to read, or difficult to navigate. If the articles are disorganized or full of poor grammar people may be turned off. To put it in perspective, you would dress professionally and speak correctly if you were face-to-face with a customer, and your site should reflect that same professionalism because that site is how people around the world will judge you and your company. This is not the kind of thing you want to trust to a novice.

Another caution is how you use the social networks to communicate with your customers. While it is great to take that bold step into the new millennium and start using the communication tools that the members of gen X and Y use with such ease–proceed with care. A bad review of your company or your products will spread like wildfire through these very same forums with just the click of a mouse, and before you know what hit you, your business reputation will be in tatters.

A professional ORM can make all the difference in how your business is perceived in the online world. They know how to use these different sites to get the word out about your business without risking your professional reputation. They know how to field questions, and address aggressive comments without putting your company in a bad light, and how to promote it in a way that will reflect the professional image you want the world to see.

Waiting for Customer Service

Written By: Ronald Foster - Jul• 24•11

Waiting for Customer Service

If your clients are waiting for good customer service, it’s time to wake up! Good service isn’t something a customer should have to wait for—or heaven forbid; ask for—it should be offered sincerely, spontaneously, and before it is expected.

In difficult economic times, service is one of the key components for keeping your business viable. Unless your product is completely unique your customers have the choice to purchase it anywhere—and when a product or service is readily available, the level of service your customer experiences is the thing that will give you an edge over your competition. If the interactions your customers have with your company leave a positive, lasting impression, that relationship will translate to an improved bottom line. Good service shows that you truly care about your customers, their business, and their overall satisfaction with your staff and your products…and best of all…it’s free.

Achieving excellent service levels may feel impossible right now. Many companies have been forced to downsize, and may feel they don’t have the manpower to increase their service levels. But there are things the staff can do that will wow the customers, and the costs—if any—will be minimal.

One of the most impactful actions an owner or manager can take is to anticipate what their customers need. The Webster’s Dictionary’s definition of anticipate is “to give advance thought, discussion, or treatment to”. That means you need to study your customers and try to determine what you could do to augment their customer experience. An example might be, if a customer stops to make a small purchase at a store and she is already carrying a number of small packages, the clerk could offer to place her all of her purchases in a larger bag—or better yet, in a shopping bag with handles—so that she can consolidate her load. Travelers are usually interested in places to eat—a notebook in a hotel lobby that lists nearby local restaurants, places of interest, and emergency medical and dental numbers will make that establishment memorable. And speaking of restaurants, a map of the local area on the placemat and a wet-nap at the end of a meal can score high points for taking customer needs into consideration.

Complimentary sales offer another way to anticipate customer needs. Think about the item you’re promoting, and what other items you sell that the customer might need at the same time. If you’re selling jackets, ask the customer if he needs gloves or a hat to go with it. If your customer is purchasing shirts, ask if he wants to look at a tie or pocket square while he has the shirt in hand. People sometimes don’t think of these little things because they’re focused on the primary item they came to purchase; but a sincere offer (not a hard sell) may trigger a sale and save them a trip back to the store at a later date.

Good customer service is like a race. You expend all of your energy and creativity to get out in front of the pack, and suddenly, there you are…all alone at the front. Everyone is trying to emulate your business because you’re the leader; but this is the point where many top contenders actually lose the race. They start looking back over their shoulders to see what the competition is doing instead of focusing on the finish line. They see one of their competitors offering something different so they decide to try something similar, then another company draws their attention and they’re off in another direction. This is a dangerous and self-condemning process. Think about it! You are out in front…why would you want to copy the people behind you—the very people that are trying to catch you?  That isn’t to say you don’t want to be aware of where your competition is and what they are doing—just be original and true to the values and service levels that got you where you are in the first place—out in front. Stay focused on the goal…offering the very best customer experience possible, and let the competition strive to catch you. As long as you’re the one setting the bar, achieving success should be a given.

Building an Effective Customer Experience

Written By: Ronald Foster - Jun• 02•11

The big catch phrase in almost any industry today is “customer experience”. Since the down-turn in the economy a few years ago we have been watching company after company succumb to bankruptcy—even large, well-entrenched companies are falling victim to reduced spending, down-sizing, and diminishing profits. In an effort to turn this trend around, companies have been trying everything they can think of to bring customers back to the cash registers—free shipping, percentage off coupons, gift cards, buy one get one free offers…none of which seems to be working long-term.

Some of the more astute CEO’s are now realizing that old-fashioned “customer first” logic has some merit. Customers want to shop where they feel they are more than a number. If a company can connect with its customers and earn their trust, it will build a groundswell of loyal customers that will not only return to that company to shop, they will also recommend it to their friends and families.

Building a solid customer experience can certainly set a company apart from the competition, but most managers don’t quite know where to start. While training is obviously called for, it isn’t as simple as throwing a little training at the employees and calling it good. Of course a good training design is the foundation for a successful shift in company policy and procedure, but before training design gets underway there is a lot of prep work to be done.

Building a great customer experience demands that you determine exactly what influences your customers to make that initial purchase and then what brings them back. First you have to identify every place and every way that your customers interacts with your company—and the best way to do that is to map a customer purchase from inception to satisfied delivery of goods or services.

Creating a customer experience map (mind map) with the customer at the center is a good way to start. The most effective way to create the full map is with a team of representatives from different parts of the company (this will give a broader perspective than will working with people from one area). Give each person a set of post-it notes® and ask them to write down the places where the customer and the company come in contact (touch points)—one contact to a page—and post it on the wall. Next, spend some time organizing the notes into a logical order flow (affinity mapping). The finished product identifies the customer touch points and these are where your training should be focused.

Unfortunately, many companies mistakenly think that the clerk in the store or the phone operator in the call center is the only person that influences the customers’ buying patterns. The truth is, anyone in the chain that was identified in the customer experience map can affect the relationship with the customer. It might be that the vendor’s goods aren’t as advertized, or the price was incorrect in an ad, or the shipping company may have delivered the package to the wrong address—regardless of what caused the actual breakdown, the company as a whole takes the blame.

The training designer needs to take all of these touch points into consideration in order to build a comprehensive and effective training program for the company. The training design needs to have multiple iterations tailored to each department, but it also needs to make it clear how each of these departments depends on one another to create that special customer experience.

While the actual policy and procedure design may focus on ways to improve service to the customer at the line level, it is absolutely critical to recognize that the employees make it all work. They need to feel that there is support for their efforts at every level in the organization starting with the Office of the President. Line workers need clear expectations about what they can and can’t do for a customer in order to execute their work with confidence. They also need on-going feedback about what they’re doing well, and how they can improve if they are to grow in their jobs.

It’s important to recognize that no matter how well you plan or how good your design may be, there will be times when things breakdown. Most customers will let you know when things go wrong if their delivery was impacted—if they got the wrong item, it was late, or it didn’t arrive at all. When something like that happens, go back to your map to determine where things went wrong and then take steps to correct the problem. The solution may be as simple as giving an employee individual remedial training or as complex as finding and repairing a flaw in the work process.

A more difficult problem is customer discontent with some element of the experience that didn’t actually impact the delivery. This might be because a phone rep was rude, a store clerk was too pushy, or a facility was too hot or too cold. In these instances customers may not be moved to say anything, but it may influence their opinions of your business. To be sure these problems don’t go unnoticed some customer research is necessary (e.g., customer survey cards in the store, online feedback forms, phone surveys conducted by independent, professional survey companies, etc.). As this data is collected, review your training materials with the results in mind. Make adjustments as needed, and be sure to provide appropriate feedback where it is indicated.

Your customers are your business. No one department or individual can make it or break it—but collectively, your employees are the corporate machine that can make things happen. If you are attentive to your customers’ needs—both internally and externally—and treat them well, your business can’t help but succeed, and when the whole company works together to get things right the first time, the customer experience will be memorable.

The Buck Starts Here

Written By: Ronald Foster - May• 24•11

Recently a local business owner and I were discussing the importance of building a customer experience that is so impressive and comprehensive that it invites customers to tell their friends and family.  The point came up of where the best place to start building a customer experience program is.

Now over time, I have heard many theories. Some were brilliant ideas while others were not as impressive. The truth, in my humble opinion, is that the best place to start is with the Business Owner / President / CEO / etc. It takes that first leap of faith, that moment in time when the decision is made to build a memorable experience regardless of the cost. It’s not just a reflexive, “going through the motions” attempt either. It is an experience so perfectly crafted that the customer feels compelled to tell their friends and family. It is when this level of commitment is achieved that extraordinary results begin to follow.

We can literally spend a fortune in the name of building the customer experience. We may spend incalculable hours on researching and hiring just the right people to interact with our customers. We can segment our customers and decipher every aspect of their buying behaviors learning what it is they like and dislike. We may even go so far as to track the customer satisfaction levels and NPS scores in an effort to follow our progress. After all of that, without the complete acceptance and buy-in from the “corner office” lasting change will remain elusive at best.

So, if there is one piece of guidance I would offer any company seeking to improve their customer experience it would be to begin with an assessment of what they hope to accomplish. Before the owner takes that first step, they should ask if they are ready to make the commitment and possibly face some eye-opening facts. For example, are they ready to face the possibility that they have lost touch with their customers?

Ask yourself this question. Have you made the commitment to begin serving your customers in a manner in which they deserve to be served?

If your answer is yes then saddle up. It’s going to be an exciting ride.

One of the most important and overlooked rules of Customer Service

Written By: Ronald Foster - May• 13•11

Through the course of any given day, I may read 10 or more articles regarding customer service, customer experience, customer relationships, and the list continues. I read one recently that states the first rule of “Great customer service begins with You.”

What a profound statement! Obviously there are people from within an organization who will rarely if ever speak to a customer. That is until we consider that ALL employees are customers and all employees are suppliers. I have “customers” who depend on me to do my job consistently every day. However, I cannot perform my job as well if my “suppliers” do not supply me with the information, product or items I need. I rely on their service to me, their customer.

Our actions are not limited to our organizations either. Take, for example, that I am a creature of habit. I visit a local super-market every morning before work to get my lunch and a little Starbucks. The cashier is an older gentleman with an incurably positive attitude. He always remembers “his customers” names and other details. He will cheer you up on a bad day or share in your happiness on good days.

One day I asked him what it is that keeps him in such a good mood. After all, we all face our stumbling blocks and sometimes life is not “Sunny and 70.” His answer was simple. “Often I am the first non-family person my customers see for the day. If I can help them to be more productive and have a good day by being positive, it is worth it.”

I want to point out that this is not in his job description. It is not something in which his employee reviews are based. He doesn’t even receive a bonus based on the number of people he made smile throughout the day. He simply does it because, in his mind, great customer service begins with him.

So, remember as you go through the motions of your day. Great customer service begins with YOU!

Some businesses still do not get it – The experience is everything!

Written By: Ronald Foster - May• 13•11
Last weekend was a great weekend for our family. We were caught up on our chores and were actually ahead for once.  As a treat for the family on this day we thought a trip out for some pizza and soda sounded nice. So off we went.
Being ones to support our local community we will sometimes look for an establishment that is new to us. We had heard nothing but good reviews about a local pizzeria so we decided to give them a shot. The ambiance was exactly what we would have expected and with the exception of a few open tables the restaurant was full.
As we approached the counter to make our decision we took our place in the line and slowly started our journey towards the order window. Now I am not one who is big on lines, in fact I hate being stuck in a line, but sometimes the prize is worth the wait. Finally our turn came and we make our selection. “We would like a 14” everything pizza, bread sticks and a pitcher of root beer please” we told the order taker.
Her simple reply overshadowed the ambiance, our appetites and any preconception we may have had about the restaurant. “I can only take your food order” she replied. “You will need to order your drinks over there.” She pointed to yet another line of people waiting to place orders (and pay separately) for their favorite beverage. At first we though she was joking with us but we soon learned she wasn’t. Really? I replied, even the Bureau of Motor Vehicles wouldn’t do that (more about that another day.) “That is the way we do things here” came the response.
I know designing the perfect customer experience may be a daunting task at first for the average business owner. Start small. Stick with what you know. If you were the customer how would you want the experience to go? If you get stuck, ask your customers! If you are afraid to ask your customers then hire a customer experience consultant. The money invested for their services will pay dividends for your bottom line.

Building the customer experience a nickel at a time

Written By: Ronald Foster - May• 13•11
When our daughter was a toddler she had a favorite doll that accompanied her everywhere she went. This stuffed friend was made of soft green fabric and was appropriately named Baby G because of her green color.  Baby G was the best friend any child could ask for. She was always ready to play and was there by our daughter’s side each night when it was time for bed. The two were inseparable.
On a visit to a local restaurant we placed our daughter in the high chair which had become part of our daily routine. Baby G took her normal place in the seat next to her. After receiving our drinks my wife and I discussed the never ending to-do list for the day while our daughter chatted away with Baby G. While waiting for our food to arrive our daughter, like kids often do, spilled her milk and began to cry. As we cleaned the mess from the table (fortunately she had finished most of the milk) our waitress came to our table to help clean and to get another drink for our daughter. We were appreciative of the offer and she was off to the kitchen while we tried to comfort our child.
In short time our waitress returned with a new cup of milk for our daughter and had another cup, with lid and straw, in her other hand. With a smile on her face she gave us the cup of milk for our daughter and took the other cup to Baby G. We didn’t notice at first but tape had been placed on the sides of that cup. She carefully placed Baby G’s hands on the tape allowing Baby G to “hold her own” cup. Needless to say our daughter quickly forgot about the drink and our meal was great.
This simple act of thoughtfulness (and five cents worth of supplies) by our customer experience activist disguised as a waitress left a lasting impression on us. We have since frequented that particular restaurant for over 10 years and continue to recommend it to countless friends and relatives. Talk about a return on investment. No amount of paid advertising could generate this level of return.
It is often the little things we do that leave a lasting impression on our customers. A passing smile, a friendly greeting or simply taking the time to answer a question can mean the difference between a one visit customer and a customer for life. As customer experience advocates we understand this concept and look for opportunities to create these wow moments.