Kodwo Manuel’s thoughts …Every Customer is unique, engage each one: the dilemma of experience versus efficiency

Photo: Kodwo Manuel, Managing Consultant at Capability Trust Limited

It is clear that in our contemporary world, technology plays a dominant role in enhancing business performance. So we humbly accept the fact that technology is an enabler in our quest to achieve strategic goals in significant ways. Otherwise, why would we elevate the role of technology leadership to the pivot of our organizational structure? Consider the roles of Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Technology Officer (CTO), both of whom have become major boardroom actors, spearheading the drive towards efficient outcomes in organizational processes. However, the truth laid bare: Technology is an enabler of the customer experience, it is not ‘the experience’.

In our world of business, the customer buys the benefits of an item or service, so for example no customer buys a website, they buy the benefits! This brings to the fore the underlying and intangible customer motivations we have to uncover if we are to manage experience, or else we invest our resources in tools and processes, that focus on achieving efficiency in our business, rather than on a memorable customer benefit of booking a flight using that website or to browse iTunes. The reality is not to be too obsessed about efficiency as in most cases customers assume them to be a given. We must recast our view of the customer and accept the fact that it has more to do with how our customers feel and behave, and hope that our ability to manage experience is what ultimately leads us to our primarily sought after quest, to maintain the customer’s interest and create value.

Customers rule

Meyer and Schwager (2007) writing in the Harvard Business Review defined customer experience as ‘the internal and subjective response customers have to any direct or indirect contact with a company’. The active word here is ‘subjective’, hence this definition sets up the process of managing customer experience as a dynamic activity requiring different approaches to keep one in sync with the main subject, the customer. It means that as far as the customer is concerned we cannot talk about management in the traditional sense of the word. The following dialogue may throw some light on how emotions tend to weigh heavily in a typical buy decision. ‘I need some tomatoes to buy – my goal is to go get one (how) – I can’t be bothered to walk, it’s too far for me today (motivation) so I won’t go to my usual friendly vendor (previous emotion) but the nearest and easiest (current emotion)’. The lesson here is simple, if you were assessing this customer based on your normal business metrics you would be wide off the mark here, the customer has made a purely emotional decision based on how he or she feels at the moment.

Julie Walker, a social media expert, learned this and was quick to react to a situation by making noise about a concern, from overhearing a conversation at a golfing club. Female golfers were complaining about the heavy and badly designed umbrellas, how the female golfer was not catered for. It led directly to the development of a social community Golfing Gertie, an outlet for golfing umbrellas and products for female golfers. The firm was set up on a hunch in an agile manner, based on a close understanding of what it is like to be a customer, not an analysis of volumes of data. Customer experience management is flawed in many ways. Do we think Apple, Zappos, Geek Squad and, Amazon achieved ‘Experience’ brand status by just focusing on ‘Efficiency’? Do companies only create customer value by being the best at fixing problems? Whatever strategies companies may have adopted we must accept the fact that among other considerations they also think about how the customer feels and factor this into every planning activity. No rational thinking here.

These instances point to the fact that as a business we need to configure innovative spaces and cross-functional teams to manage a process of listening in and empathizing with the customer, and we must be persistent about this. Perhaps to be more effective here we need to listen, get closer to employees, suppliers, and customers who live the experience. We must not discount the human parameter if our goal is to create an experience brand. Inculcate the customer experience mindset in every organizational actor, and do not rely only on a customer service team, customer experience is the job of everyone. The complete organization must be customer-oriented. Heather Williams a customer service expert sums it all up when she says ‘revolve your world around the customer and more customers will revolve around you’. Notice that all customers view the organization as one entity and not as separate silos when they engage with you, hence the irrational decision they may make, of writing you off if one touchpoint falls short of their expectation, regardless of all the positive experiences you may have offered them previously. Customers don’t care, they just see the experience!

Align leaders around the customer experience

The renowned leadership coach John Maxwell opines, ‘everything rises and falls on leadership’. Leadership must play a key role in raising the profile of the customer as part of your business strategy and also show support for customer activity by promoting conversation about the subject. The reason is not far-fetched. To survive in today’s economy, offering high-quality goods and services alone is not sufficient. Companies have to compete on a more complex level by creating a satisfactory customer experience through all stages of the buying process, managing the customer’s expectations and assessments before, during, and after the sale. The role of leadership in achieving this is pivotal. By getting involved in customer-related activities albeit randomly, mangers will help us to learn at first-hand customer concerns. This is not to downplay the fact that in many organizations these processes may be in practice variously, the suggestions here are generic and are meant to add to the debate of how we can improve the experience of our customers, which as we keep learning, weigh more on emotions than rational thinking.

First, leaders must be in the frontline with staff so for example in situations where customer call centres are part of the mix it pays to periodically listen in on calls randomly to develop a good understanding of customer-related issues and assess how this may impact on your business domain. Second, a regular analysis of customer feedback is helpful concerning gaining customer insights to speed up decisions that affect the customer directly. Third, as a manager be prepared to talk at meetings about how your role impacts on your customers as this will bring conversations about the customer to the fore and influence frontline actors to take their role more seriously, they will be motivated by the fact that they have high-level support for what they do. Forth, sample at least 3 customer complaints periodically and present as subjects for deliberations at the highest level, these could even be part of board sessions to bring common customer issues into focus for the input of key stakeholders. Fifth, visit a customer with a brief to ‘listen humbly’ to what works or does not work for them today. Feedback on what you have learned at your team and high-level meetings. Finally, engage your direct reports by frequently holding one to one meetings about the customer. A common dialogue could be ‘next time we meet I would like you to have thought about what we do and how it impacts our customer’. Once you have established this, your follow up action would be to ‘identify one way to improve that experience’. Typically, the owners of any business define the internal culture, if leadership puts the customer’s concerns at the heart of the business, this becomes everyone else’s concern.

Focus on quick wins

To be successful in managing your customer experience it is key to ensure that the early plan is based on delivering quick wins to create a positive response and build confidence. Avoid plans that focus on deliverables one to three years out as they may never come to fruition. In any plan, you will have small changes and bigger challenging components. To drive a successful customer experience improvement plan, you must look for lots of small changes that may range from changing the words of a standard letter to adjusting an existing measure. Adopt plans that embrace as wide an audience as possible and relevant to as many. Customer Experience is dynamic and requires a different approach. Aim at a wide reach and cultural impact as opposed to a single point fixed deliverable. Customer Experience Management is about applying knowledge, and managers are wise if they use the knowledge that someone created and applied before them. After all, an intelligent man learns from his own mistakes, but a wise man learns from the mistakes of others.


The Writer is the Managing Consultant at Capability Trust Limited a People and Learning Organisation. He can be reached on 059 175 7205, [email protected]

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