Customer experience the next frontier for SMEs

Whether we are young or old, male or female, or live in this society or that, everyone in the global economy shares a common experience… We are all customers.

While this may seem an obvious fact, it is surprising how many businesses overlook it. Most of us purchase some product or service everyday of our lives but can you recall the last time you had a truly positive and rewarding experience as a customer?

The reason exceptional customer experiences are rare is that most businesses do not make it their over-riding priority. Even when they say their customers are their top concern, they actually place greater importance on their own internal requirements and operational needs.

Expect this to change. Chris Bell is managing director of Customer Experiences, a Christchurch company that specialises in helping businesses improve the way they interact with customers and clients. He says surveys have shown that senior business executives in Europe and America believe the customer experience is the next competitive battleground.

“It is increasingly difficult for businesses to find competitive advantages that will allow them to attract and retain customers. Consumers today have many more options than ever before. They are more mobile and less loyal,” Chris Bell says.

“If you do discover a point of difference, it may only give a short term advantage as others strive to match it. This is especially true for small and medium businesses, which cannot always compete on price.”

The solution is to create a sustainable competitive advantage through customer loyalty. The cost of retaining existing customers is much less than creating new customers, so the best strategy is to cultivate customers by giving them very positive experiences. This means building real relationships with them based on emotions and empathy, and not just on financial exchanges.

Chris Bell uses a recent trip to a local branch of Hirequip to illustrate what he means by a truly positive customer experience.

“When a tree blew down in my yard I needed to hire a chainsaw to cut it up. I haven’t used chainsaws often and I was a bit apprehensive. The sales staff at Hirequip sensed this. They could have just dumped a machine in my lap and sent me away.

“Instead, they asked me questions and gave me the information and the confidence I needed to tackle the job. It is this willingness to pay attention and to talk to people with difference levels of experience without undermining their credibility that makes for outstanding customer service.”

The key, Chris Bell suggests, is to realise that in a world of excess, uniformity and repetition, people buy experiences, not products or services. When people feel good about their experience they will not only return, they will tell their friends.

To turn a financial exchange into a rewarding experience, businesses have to be creative and they have to be fully committed to seeing the world through their customers’ eyes.

“Too many businesses pay lip service to the importance of customer service. They don’t really listen to their customers’ concerns and they leave customer relations up to a few frontline staff, who may or may not have a positive attitude.

“A really effective customer-focused strategy requires an organisation’s total commitment. Everyway your company ‘touches’ the customer contributes to the total experience, and therefore the total value of your products and services. It has to be a long term effort and it must be accompanied by changes in leadership, culture, systems and people,” Chris Bell says.

Chris Bell and his Customer Experiences team have come up with an innovative approach to help small and medium size businesses develop their customer experience. It is a comprehensive but affordable program that guarantees results. It begins with an evaluation of the business because only those companies the organisers believe will benefit are invited to take part.

The program is based on the fact that most of us find it difficult to view our own business from the customer’s perspective. However, when we look at an unrelated business but one we are very familiar with as customers, we have little difficulty identifying how it could improve the customer experience.

“We stumbled on the concept in one of our early workshops, when we sent participants out as mystery shoppers. They came back with a long list of ways the business they observed performed well or badly. When we asked them to suggest how to improve the performance, they came up with some really creative ideas.

“Using this experience, we have created a program that enables participants to approach the customer experience in a relaxed, fun, team atmosphere. Once they have done our hands-on exercises, participants will have the confidence to develop their own strategy to enhance customer experience. They should also seek to create an environment that will encourage others in their business to be more creative.”

A key element in Customer Experiences’ programs is follow-up support. As participants implement their customer experience plan, they have full access to the programme facilitator.

“A customer experience strategy is an on-going journey,” Chris Bell says. “There is no quick fix to change cultures and entrenched attitudes. It requires leadership and our program aims at developing leaders who will inspire, motivate, and reward the right behaviour.”

Chris Bell is managing director of Customer Experiences; a company that specialises in helping businesses improve the way in which they interact with customers and clients. Click here to contact us.