As in person so online: Building consistency with customer touchpoints

J. N. Halm

It is common knowledge that customer service is all about managing expectations. Every customer walks into an experience with an expectation in mind. Brands that become the darlings of customers are those that are best able to manage the expectations of customers. As a matter of fact, great customer service is about consistently exceeding the expectations of customers on a regular basis. In other words, the customer comes with an expectation of “good” service and she receives “great” service. The “great” service then becomes her expectation and when she comes in next time, she gets “better than great” service.

Consistency in service performance is about ensuring that there is always that little extra that the business adds to the customer’s experience. The positive consistency does one thing for the customer. It places the one in a position where she is never sure of what good things she is to receive in her next engagement with the brand. There is a positive anticipation whenever the customer gets ready to engage the brand. This is akin to the feelings kids have on the eve of Christmas (or birthday)—not knowing what gifts they would be receiving the next day.

There is another situation that can place customers in a position where they do not know what is in store for them. However, this is not the positive anticipation that great brands give to their customers. It is a feeling of frustration. It is what happens when a brand’s performance is never consistent. If one day the service is great and on another day, the service leaves much to be desired, customers are constantly left in a state of confusion.

Nothing is more frustrating than engaging a brand and not being sure of what is in store for you. How does one plan for an experience that fluctuates with each and every engagement? How do you describe what is to be expected when you are not too sure of what you will be receiving? That is the challenge of inconsistent performance.

The importance of consistency cannot be overstated. Brands, by their very definition, are built on the foundation of consistency. It is only by consistently delivering, and over-delivering, on its promise that one ascribes a brand status to an offering. A one-off performance never earns a product or service the status of a great brand. Like a battle-hardened general, a great brand earns its stripes through positively consistent performance.

Poor brands are also built on consistency. The only difference being that they are built on negatively consistent performance. Even the worst-performing brands occasionally get it right. But their one-time good performances does no good when it comes to how customers perceive them.

An aspect of service performance that great brands ensure consistency in is with the various points of interaction between the business and its customers. Referred to as customer touchpoints, these points of contact have a big influence on the kind of experience customers have. Touchpoints include the organisation’s front line employees, brochures, flyers, catalogues, physical premises, shops, kiosks, mobile vans, as well as telephone lines. As with anything that has do with customer experience, it is important for customer touchpoints to perform on a consistent basis.

It would be easier for businesses to maintain some level of consistency if there was only one touchpoint that every customer had to deal with. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Businesses would normally have multiple touchpoints that customers have to deal with. The challenge for every business, therefore, is getting all its various touchpoints to perform at a consistently high level. Getting all the various touchpoints to deliver a consistent message to different categories of customers is one of the most difficult tasks facing any management.

A good manager’s job include, among other things, the ability to navigate the customer’s journey and to ensure that each touchpoint is designed in such a way that each delivers a consistent performance. If all customer touchpoints were all physical in nature, then standardizing those touchpoints would be a lot more manageable.

However, over the past decades, customers have had to deal with businesses via the magic of the Internet. The days when the customer’s experience is only in person are far gone and I really doubt if we are ever going to return to those days. Having a presence on the WWW is now more of a must. Whether via the business’ website, social media presence or any other touchpoint, it is expected that customers would continue to engage businesses online.

As communication technology continued to evolve into more sophisticated forms, customers have been slowly driven more and more on to online touchpoints. This has inadvertently added a new layer to the already difficult task of trying to streamline the organisation’s customer touchpoints.

Studies have shown that in-person experiences tend to differ from online experiences for many customers. There is a reason for this. It is clear that when customers are online their expectations differ from when they visit the business in person. And because expectations colour the experience, customers would definitely have different experiences, depending on whether they are online or in store.

A study that was published in an August 2021 edition of Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science brought out some interesting findings regarding customers’ online and in-person touchpoint experience. One of the impressive things about that particular study was the extensiveness of the entire study. The researchers had access to two million observations made by customers in the stores and across the website of a global retailer that has a presence in about 47 countries around the world. That was a lot of data to really dig into.

Titled “Designing Satisfying Service Encounters: Website Versus Store Touchpoints”, the study found that customers look out for different things when engaging with these two broad categories of touchpoints. According to the researchers, when customers visit the business in person, they tend to weigh more heavily the sensory and emotional dimensions of the experience. However, when customers are dealing with the business via online touchpoints, their concentration is more on the cognitive and behavioural dimensions of the experience. This makes perfect sense.

For example a customer who visits a shop will, in addition to all the other factors, be able to get a sense of the smell or aroma of the shop. If that customer walked into the aisle that has freshly baked pastries, cookies, loaves of bread and other confectioneries, that customer would be overwhelmed with the fragrance of the place. This would add to the factors that might win the customer over to make a purchase.

However, that customer would not have the same experience, if she was ordering those food items online. Online, she has to rely on her visual senses to make a decision as to whether to go ahead with the purchase or not. She also has to cast her mind back to perhaps the last experience she had with that purchase. Therefore in ensuring that the website is delivering an experience that would be consistent with what the customer might have if she had visited the store in person, the designers of the company’s website must use the right elements. The right typefaces, font sizes, colours, spacing, etc. must all be employed to create a seamless experience for the customer.

In short, the company’s website must be as attractive as the company’s physical premises. On far too many occasions, businesses design their websites without a thought as to how that blends into the typical customer’s in-person experience. Many of those contracted to design the company’s online presence have no idea of the customer’s experience.

It is worth noting that in a typical customer experience, there are transitions between online and in-person touchpoints. A customer’s journey could start with a sighting of the brand on a billboard, continue with a visit to the brand’s website or social media pages and finally end up with a visit to the company’s premises. What this means is that businesses must ensure each and every customer touchpoint is delivering a consistent message to help create a seamless experience for the customer.

However, the researchers in the aforementioned Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science study touched on a very important point—the need for businesses to pay special attention to what the researchers referred to as a business’ “primary referent”. This refers to the main customer touchpoint of the business.

For instance, a retail business’ primary referent will be its stores, while for another business, the primary referent might be a mobile app or a website. The retail outlet might also have a website while the online business relying mainly on an app might have a brick-and-mortar presence. However, those will not be the primary referents. In designing the customer’s experience, the primary referent must be so designed to always give customers an excellent experience. The other secondary touchpoints would then be designed to support the experience at the primary referent.

One of the factors that businesses need to consider when designing a great experience for their customers online is the ease of use of the online platforms. Customers do not have to go through stress to navigate through the website and other online platforms. Ease of use has been found to be one of the major factors that affect the customer’s experience. On a regular basis, the business must walk in the shoes of its customers with the sole purpose of finding out where things can be made a lot easier for the customer.

Studies have shown that the experience customers have with the various touchpoints of the business can be a very important source of competitive advantage. Organisations that are better able to design their multiple touchpoints in such a way that these touchpoints deliver consistent experiences are those that will stay ahead of the competition.

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