What exactly is Customer Experience? …aim to address perceptions by thinking outside-in

Kodwo Manuel is the Managing Consultant at Capability Trust Limited a People and Learning Organisation serving the market with Talent Acquisition and Management.

In the past few months, I have dwelt relentlessly on the subject of customer experience – a mission I committed to after having a telling encounter years ago during my sojourn in the UK. The lessons from that encounter have undoubtedly been permanently etched in my memory until this day.

As I continue to reflect on the experience, the desire to discover more truths about customer experience has been very intense, leading me to pursue this journey; therefore, I am not surprised that the mission to understand the realities surrounding Customer Experience has for me been one great experience of discovery and learning.

Through the unearthing of facts and personal experiences, I have come to terms with the inevitable potency of great customer experiences and the potential they have to turn a business around if, and only if, one gets the strategy right.

The story is told of an elephant coming to town in a particular village. Legend has it that six blind men who had never met an elephant before tried to describe it to the others by feeling around it with their hands. The first blind man grabs one leg of the elephant and says an elephant is like a pillar. The next one feels around its trunk and disputes him, opining that the elephant is like a tree branch.

The third man feels the tail and says the elephant is like a rope. The other inspects its belly and concludes it is like a wall. The one who inspects a tusk gleefully reports the elephant is like a solid pipe. The last one grabbed its ear and said the elephant is like a hand-fan. They argue among themselves, each thinking the other was wrong until a passer-by notices them and says, “Believe it or not all of you are right. The reason you don’t agree is that you touched a different part of the same elephant”.

The Customer Experience Concept

Two separate entities are involved in birthing a typical customer experience scenario. They are the ‘customer’ and the ‘brand’ (or company). In the encounter between the business and the customer, the former (business) encodes the experience and the customer decodes it. The encoding phase involves the development of products or services, their branding and launching into the market.  However, there is a caveat: companies are not fully responsible for encoding or building their brands. The customer plays a key role in the process. The company will potentially design such components as the logo, colours, product or service delivery, and other elements of the brand.  On launching, the customer’s role is then paramount in shaping the image of the brand. By consuming a product or service and sharing their experience through online platforms or other media, they ultimately act as encoders as well as decoders.

Some theorists maintain that experiences are non-physical and thus should not be evaluated as physical. However, the reality is that true experiences are derived from the physical world (Tavsan and Erdem 2018). We perceive the world through our five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. These senses are primed to recognise physical things. When you buy popcorn you see corn, salt and perhaps other ingredients. You smell the interesting aroma and experience the taste as you throw the bits into your mouth. You can purchase popcorn from a vendor at any of the shopping malls, typically a Melcom or Shoprite, and eat it so many times it could lose its meaning.

To the contrary, if you eat popcorn while watching a Black Stars match at the stadium with friends you probably will have a different experience due to the context. Context can also be time-related. I read Animal Farm years ago in primary school as literature material. As an adult having gone through youth and progressed in age, the story presents a different view to me now from when I first read it. The way we think will evolve and sometimes conflict with our past-selves. At each stage in life, an individual is a different person as a result of his/her accumulated experiences.

Perception is key for the customer

Customer experience is simply the perception a customer has of your brand. This is where it gets murky; as a business you may pride yourself with high-quality products and/or services laced with a keenness to show this off to your customer. Truth be told, if the customer perceives it as something different all the noise you make about your brand will be of little effect from his/her perspective. A customer gets a bad response from your product or service that is not resolved promptly and efficiently, and their perception of your company as a low-quality service provider becomes their reality.

The key is striving to achieve consistency in your service delivery and inculcating this as a culture in the organisation. Consider this: what would happen if your frontline personnel were apathetic about your service and were not keen to be in their roles? How would they treat your customer if they were in that frame of mind? They would have poor interactions with your customers, which may lead to the perception that your brand is not worth their effort.

Other things may contribute to overall customer perception. These include the product quality, cleanliness and organisation of your store; your after-sales service, who leads your company; what goes on in your company (culture, processes, etc.), or ease of navigating your website. Customers are fickle in their perception and can change their loyalty to your brand at will. Therefore, to maintain a positive frame in the mind of a customer regarding your brand, you need to take time to ensure that every step of your customer’s journey is adequately catered for.

If you staff your company with people who don’t care about the business, they will end up not treating your customer well and feed into their perception about your brand. On the other hand, if your company is filled with zealous employees who are passionate about the brand, guess what they will feed into the perception of your customers. Therefore, as a business, managing the customer’s perception in all its forms should be a top priority for you. It is the responsibility of every single person in your organisation.

What Customer Experience is not!

Customer experience encompasses all forms of customer-related issues regarding the customer’s association with the brand. Note, however, that customer experience as a predictor of customer behaviour must not be confused with other loyalty predictors such as Customer Satisfaction (CS) or Customer Relationship Management (CRM). Customer satisfaction is result-oriented and leans more toward the features or benefits of a particular brand. Furthermore, the process-oriented framework of Customer Experience must not be confused with Customer Relationship Management.

The reason is that Customer Experience goes beyond merely building strong connections through the analysis of recorded linear transactions. Customer Experience cannot be restricted to single transactions. On the contrary, it is the subjective response by consumers to brand stimuli on multiple levels. CRM differs from Customer Experience in some ways: Firstly, it focuses on analytics and tries to explain the customer’s behaviour through several quantitative models, tracking what the customer does. Customer Experience Management (CEM) on the other hand focuses on scrutinising the customer through qualities as well as quantitatively; thus it tracks and measures how the customers feel and think as well as what they do.

It is common knowledge that many businesses are constantly urging their employees to ‘go the extra mile’ with their customers. The fact is this may be effective for a few customers, who will as a result enjoy positive experiences; however, going the extra mile to provide a good experience for a few customers may leave dozens of others dissatisfied. The key is to deliver consistently satisfying experiences and make that fundamentally pivotal to your organisation’s customer engagement strategy.

This means merely delivering good customer service is not enough to satisfy the customer emotionally and endow him/her with great memories from associating with your brand. Customer Experience is interactive and reaches deep into the customer’s emotions, memories, and perspective of life. Apple users are fiercely loyal to the brand  -such that they are willing without any ‘coercion’ to upgrade whenever the opportunity lends itself to them. Apple’s bid to fill its shops with frontline personnel at great cost to their bottom-line feeds into its engagement strategy.

Customer Experience is subjective

We must accept the fact that customer experiences are subjective. The way we perceive a product, service, or brand varies from person to person, time to time, and context. The goal of every brand should therefore be to make the subjective experience positive and memorable for as many customers as possible, even though they have subjective opinions of your brand and/or products. The truth is that subjectivity is not only limited to the brand names. Several factors affect the way customers perceive the brand: such as online comments, interactions with employees, colour, store designs, and so on.

I recall walking into a retail outlet a few years ago in London to purchase an item. One of the store attendants whom I had sought some help from, surprisingly, urged me to go to the next shop because they had a better selection than what his shop was offering. Although his candid advice may be helpful in hindsight, I just think that his disloyalty with his bread and butter providers is not an attitude to be complimented.

Subjectivity may come in various forms, including cultural context. Consider the way we dress to attend funerals in this country. We normally wear black attire or something with a black design on a white background. Culturally, this is what is accepted in our society; however, I understand that in China they believe that the colour white is the colour associated with death, so it is perfectly acceptable to mourn in your white dress.

Singapore Airlines is known to be a trendsetter in pioneering novelties; they introduced free headsets and free drinks in economy class during the 1970s. A customer will not judge Singapore Airlines only by assigning value to it on its merit. Instead, the customer will compare his/her experience with them to other airlines. The experiential attributes of Singapore Airlines will therefore give it distinction in the customer’s mind.  Ryanair, for instance, distinguishes themselves from other airlines ‘by delivering limited service and limited customer experience at low prices’. Customers willing to fly with the airline are happy to patronise Ryanair’s quest to get you what you pay for. Their value is based on budget rather than amenities.

Experts opine that delivering added elements of pleasure in your Customer Experience effectively widens the margin of customer surplus and enables you to address the following: Firstly, to increase the demand for your offerings. Second, increase the price level of your offerings. Third, build a loyal customer base due to the enhanced pleasure derived from your offerings. Doing this strategically ultimately helps you achieve financial growth, profitability and customer loyalty. Furthermore, you need to think of price as having not only monetary value. In this case, price stands for what customers pay in exchange for an offering, so it has monetary value – but it may also include the value of the experience to them.

People often pay extra for quality and for the pleasure they receive from a product or service. Additionally, customers pay to have a choice, which transcends monetary value. Understanding customer experience as a game-changer in your business space is therefore key; and when you can influence your employees and representatives to imbibe the mindset of being focused on customer needs, you are well on your way to occupying the commanding heights over your competition.

The Writer is Managing Consultant at Capability Trust Limited, a People and Learning Organisation serving the market with Talent Acquisition and Management, Leadership Development, HR Outsourcing and General HR Advisory, Training and consulting services. He can be reached on 059 175 7205, [email protected]/ www.linkedin.com/in/km-13b85717




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