Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Nuances in Customer Experience Management Methodologies (Is that a catchy title or what?)

I’ve been looking at customer experience management methodologies recently. All seem similar at first, but after a while you begin to pick up on the nuances that distinguish them. Here are some of the differences I’ve noticed.

- focus on function vs. emotion. The general idea of customer experience management boils down to identifying and meeting customer needs. Presumably these include both functional and emotional needs, but some methodologies make a particular point of stressing the emotional aspect of experiences. The notion is that, given reasonable functional competency, it will be the emotional components that make an experience memorable. The counter argument would be that frequent small advantages in functional experience add up over time to a positive customer attitude. Personally, I lean to the latter opinion: since most day-to-day transactions (buying groceries, paying a phone bill, making a bank deposit, shipping a package) have little emotional content, I suspect that operational excellence is usually more important than anything else.. Of course, in the handful of truly emotional or stressful situations—say, going to the doctor (but not dentist) or a family vacation (but not a business trip)—focusing on the emotional component may be correct.

- focus on ‘moments of truth’ vs. all experiences. This is similar to the function vs. emotion argument, in that it singles out some experiences as particularly critical. My initial reaction is somewhat the same: it’s important to get everything right. But even within that framework, it’s worth figuring out which portions of the experience really do matter the most to customers and giving them extra attention. Back to banking: it’s nice that my local branch usually has a little plate of cookies and coffee available, but is the quality of those refreshments itself a ‘moment of truth’? Surely it’s more important that the teller process my transactions quickly and correctly. To make the comparison a bit more realistic: let’s say I’m sitting with a bank officer opening a new account and there is something she doesn’t know how to do. Will I consider it a better experience if she offers me a cookie while she tries to figure it out, or she quickly gets help from someone more knowledgeable? I’d vote for the quicker functional resolution because that to me is the real ‘moment of truth’. Unless it’s a really good cookie.

- distinguish static experience components (advertising, signage, store layout) from interactive components (telephone calls, customized Web pages). “Static” may not be quite the right word: what I’m getting at is experiences that can’t be customized or personalized and are therefore the same for everyone. “Interactive” experiences, at least as I’m using the phrase right here, are those that can be tailored to the customer. Some people (specifically, Customer Experience Management author Bernd Schmitt, though there may well be others) define the static components as “brand experience” and the interactive components as “customer interface”. The question I’m asking is, should they truly be considered separately?. It’s getting harder to think of truly static experiences these days—even in-store signage is increasingly changeable (see, for example, a recent eWeek article “Cisco eyes digital signage”): it can easily be adjusted for local conditions, and tailoring to individual customers, as in the movie Minority Report, can’t be far behind. But, more important, the distinction is irrelevant to the customer, who certainly considers both static and interactive components as part of her experience without distinguishing between them. The argument for the distinction is probably one of convenience: static and interactive elements tend to be planned and managed separately, so it makes sense to analyze them separately. But I think this increases the danger of inconsistencies within the customer experience, which are a Very Bad Thing. So I’d argue it’s better to fight against the “natural” division than to accentuate it.

- provide same services for all customers vs. customer’s high-value services only. This is another one that’s hard to encapsulate in a headline. The idea is that some customers don’t really care about some “standard” services, so a company can save money by not providing them to those customers. On one level this is just another way to describe customization, and who could argue against that? Looked at differently, though, it seems to propose a reduction in service levels, which is a little less attractive. But not doing things customers don’t care about really can give them a simpler, and therefore better, experience. So this is a distinction I’d keep. The trick is, of course, to find ways to identify the superfluous experiences and also to be sure that removing them for some people isn’t actually more expensive than keeping them for everyone. Of course, if it truly improves the customer experience, then removing them could be worthwhile even if total cost goes up.

- expected vs. actual experiences. This one really intrigues me. To some extent, it mirrors the static vs. interactive distinction: expectations are created through advertising and other indirect (static) exposures to a company, often before some becomes a customer, while actual experiences are delivered during direct interactions. But there’s also a notion here that customers have a set of expectations derived from both direct and indirect contacts, and that any failure to deliver on those expectations can cause a problem. A corollary point is that inconsistent experiences can be even worse than consistently bad experiences, because they are more frustrating. To use an example provided by a friend of mine in customer service, if customers know to expect long call center hold times, they will adjust by calling only when it’s really important or when they have time to wait; but if hold times vary from instance to instance, they’ll call more often and be very annoyed on those occasions when the wait is long. (And, of course, they’ll forget times when the hold was short.) In sum: I generally consider advertising and similar contacts to be part of the over-all customer experience, rather than in a separate category of expectation-creating experiences (or, perhaps, “brand experiences”). But I agree that identifying customer expectations and comparing them to actual experience is important for managing customers effectively.

Of course, you can agree or disagree with me on any of these issues. What’s important is that you think about them and apply whatever makes sense in your own business situation.

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