You know customer service is a great thing, but you wonder how much it can really help your small business.
You already go all out for your customers, and everyone else who survived the crash of 2008 has been pouring it on by the bucketful too, right?
Well, at least on paper they have.
The 24/7 customer service support lines, loyal customer appreciation points, 2fers, rebates, rewards, and freebies all sound great. Too bad they so often hide the reality of understaffed sales floors, endless robot phone trees, fine print, run-arounds, and outright scams.
Real customer service is pretty much missing in action nowadays.
It may not look like it, but if you are scrambling in the increasingly competitive global economy and looking to grab an edge for your local business, now is actually a great time to leverage customer relationships as a way to differentiate your company from all the rest.
Your local business can implement a strategy that was first conceived by large enterprises in the manufacturing and technology sectors. Now, with the digital transformation, it’s trending strong, and many of the principles involved can be easily applied to an operation of any size.
CX – The New Face of Customer Service
That’s customer experience – CX – and it goes beyond traditional conceptions of customer service to encapsulate the entire customer life cycle. It is a strategy that tech companies, software-as-a-service operations, B2B vendors, and forward-thinking retailers are implementing to great advantage.
Wikipedia defines customer experience as the product of the interaction between a customer and an organization over the duration of their relationship. There are a lot of other definitions being thrown around, and a key binary is the difference between CX as viewed from the customer’s perspective and CX as an area of practice in business and marketing. In fact, the latter would be more properly identified as customer experience design or management.
Customer care is certainly an important aspect of customer experience, but so are advertising, packaging, features, ease of use, reliability, and cost among other things. CX is outlined by and describes the entirety of the customer journey through a brand’s physical and digital ecosystems.
Today’s digitally-connected, social media-driven, information-saturated consumers are defined by their increasing expectations.
Companies need to meet those expectations, so the trend going forward is a shift from focus on product to a focus on customer experience and customer satisfaction. The two go hand-in-hand, they are what customers will be looking for, and brands that deliver will be the brands that thrive.
The shift is occurring because search engines and social networks along with online access to a global-scale market of goods and services have diluted the product-based competitive advantages that companies were formerly able to use as sources of differentiation. Customer experience is now drawing the highest levels of marketing investment and will be the primary competition space over the next few years.
Research shows that improving customer experience pays dividends in the form of better business performance. The 2016 Temkin Experience Ratings reveal that companies categorized as “experience leaders” attain 22% higher net promoter scores than companies rated as “experience laggards”. This indicates that customers are more likely to recommend a brand that offers a quality customer experience.
So how does a local business with no marketing department, little less a digital marketing department, no IT shop, and no massive budget transform simple customer service into a rich customer experience?
It might be easier than you think. Here’s what you need to do first.
Develop and Maintain a Customer-Centric Culture
The embrace of customer-oriented approaches to business is one element of the digital marketing transformation and the rising primacy of customer experience.
Taking a customer-first approach in everything your company does is foundational to creating a great customer experience.
Consumers today have endless options and easy access when looking to satisfy their wants and needs. Technology has made comparison shopping more convenient than ever, and many customers will be evaluating your product or service and your business against competitors. It’s easy for current customers to leave, and new customers are hard to capture.
The way to win in a business climate where customers can use multiple devices to compare products and services in real time is to put customers first in all things. Treat them with respect, provide great service at all stages of the purchase cycle, and build ongoing relationships.
These traditional customer service guidelines are also the basic strategy embodied within the creation of a superlative customer experience. Tactics have changed a bit, but the overall objective is the same: reducing churn and maximizing customer lifetime value.
Customer-centric companies offer more than just good customer service. These companies commit to engagement in the creation of value and a high-quality, seamless experience that extends through every stage of the customer journey. They work to understand what customers really want to do, then help them do it in fast, easy, and satisfying ways.
What Does a Customer-Centric Business Look Like?
Customer-centric companies and brands display true commitment to the principle that the customer comes first. They want to empathize with their customers and really understand their wants because without satisfied customers there can be no real success.
Customer data is highly-valued by customer-centric enterprises. It is diligently gathered and used to develop insights into what customers want and need.
Customer centricity involves developing products and services around the identified wants and needs of customers.
Customer-centric strategies are designed to build and support relationships that maximize the customer’s experience with those products and services.
Customer-centric companies orient their planning and strategy toward creating and retaining loyal customers.
The Why and How of Customer-Centric Operations
Customer service has always been about the customer’s needs, and the customer-centric paradigm of increased focus on the customer makes sound business sense. Research by Deloitte and Touche comparing customer-centric companies with enterprises that had not adopted the strategy revealed that the customer-centric operations were 60% more profitable.
The 2018 Digital Trends Report published by Econsultancy and Adobe also highlighted the value of customer-centric approaches. Data from a survey of 12,795 marketing, creative, and technology professionals across EMEA, North America, and Asia Pacific regions revealed that organizations with “a cohesive plan, long-term view and executive support for the future of their customer” are more than twice as likely as their peers to significantly outperform their competitors.
The process of building a customer-centric culture will be different for every organization. Start at the top with senior leadership clearly defining the characteristics that would make your business a customer-first operation.
Some other things to consider at this level:
A customer-first culture is supported by an employee-first culture. Employees that are satisfied and happy transmit their experience during interactions with customers.
Make sure everyone on your team understands and is onboard with the brand promise, the customer experience you are trying to create, and their roles in that experience.
Identify any barriers to adopting the customer-centric approach and operationalize the changes that must be made to remove those barriers.
Plan ways to support transparency about what is and is not working, and develop methods for addressing challenges and reinforcing best practices as you move forward.
The next step is to orient your team:
Ensure that managers can take ownership of the process. They need to understand their roles and the details of customer-focused strategy as it relates to your brand. Make sure they have the skills needed to both carry out their roles and build capability in the people they lead.
Emplace feedback loops that enable managers to provide insight on how well the new initiatives are working and what needs to be done to optimize the customer experience.
Front-line employees need solid understanding of your brand promise because they will have the most responsibility for delivering on it. Make sure they know the big picture in regards to the customer experience you hope to deliver. Give them examples of behaviors that support the objectives.
Outline and set priorities regarding what is most important, then empower individual contributors with skills and knowledge that will enable them to deliver on the customer-first vision.
Establish service standards and provide guidance that will help employees make tradeoffs and decisions.
The goal is to prepare your team to anticipate customer needs and then go beyond expectations when meeting those needs.
From Good Customer Service to a Great Customer Experience
Customer experience is often cited as the most important driver of competitive advantage going forward.
Whereas customer service is often viewed as a discrete function within an organization, customer experience encompasses every aspect of customers’ interaction with a company.
Yet, in most companies, people, departments, or divisions still operate in silos. Little thought is given to the contributions separate decisions make to shaping the customer experience. If CX is considered, everyone has a different idea about what it means, and there is no overarching vision or oversight.
For example, product development might defer to marketing on customer experience matters, and both tend to focus on features and specifications. Operations will deal primarily with quality, timeliness, and cost.
Customer service reps tend to engage only with the unfolding transaction while overlooking connections to what comes before or after. For that matter, much of the service they deliver is rote. Why else would reps so often repeat “Is there anything else I can help you with?” when the original reason for the call or visit has not been successfully dealt with?
Clearly, a quality customer experience must be driven by a shared, unified vision and carried out according to design by team members who have the knowledge and capability to bring excellence to their roles within that design.
Doing CX By Design
An important principle of customer experience is that it consists of the personal, subjective perceptions the customer forms during association with a brand. It is not something created by a company.
That said, just as a skilled architect can design a structure that tends to impart a pleasant experience to those who move through it, a business can takes steps to ensure that customers have satisfying, memorable experiences during the customer journey.
If a customer-centric culture is in place, half the job of providing a good customer experience is done.
To formalize and continue the CX development process, begin with a company-wide assessment of CX maturity. After completing a review of existing processes, including employee awareness and engagement, develop a vision based on CX design principles. Make sure all team members understand and embrace the principles. Identify obstacles and find ways to remove them.
With your vision in place, use these guidelines to frame the design of a great customer experience:
Maintain the creation of smooth, friction-free interactions as an overarching CX design principle. Remember that speed and ease are key expectations that customers have for their interactions with a business.
Provide access to open, multi-channel lines of communication serving all points along the customer journey. Email, phone, social media, online chat, and instant messaging are the basics. A Microsoft survey of more than 1,000 American consumers revealed that consumers prefer interacting with businesses via instant message or chat over other channels like email and phone. Balance digital experiences with personal interactions added at points where personal contact adds the most value. Use automation judiciously.
Be responsive in communication. Most consumers expect businesses to get back to them in a timely manner.
Work to understand customers with the objective of creating a complete view of your customer. Make insights readily available and especially ensure transparency to customer-facing employees.
Treat customers as individuals. Recognize that there is no average customer. Customize products and services to the extent possible. Customers like doing business with companies that know their individual needs and work to tailor the customer experience in response to those needs. Start small by focusing on personalization at one touchpoint in the customer journey.
Recognize that consumers’ beliefs and values play an influential role in their behavior. They feel good about purchase decisions when the customer experience resonates with their personal values and reinforces their self-image.
Work to ensure consistency. Routine facilitates ease, so interactions are viewed as being easier when the customer’s experience is the same every time.
The overall goal is to ensure customer satisfaction by meeting and exceeding needs at every touchpoint along the customer journey.
Once you have constructed the basic framework of a customer experience that is ideal for your brand, gather and leverage customer data, keep abreast of changes in your market, and keep up with advances in technology. Use the knowledge gained to refine, tailor, and evolve the experience you offer your customers.
Customer Experience: A Pathway to Small Business Success
Meeting customer expectations and staying ahead of the competition today takes much more than great customer service. An outstanding customer experience plays the most important role in establishing and maintaining customer loyalty, generating great reviews, and expanding your customer base.
Small businesses actually have a significant advantage over large enterprises when it comes to implementing a CX model. They have far more control, fewer internal barriers, and closer relationships with their customers. Yet a small business can reap all of the benefits a well-designed CX approach can provide. Now is a great time for your business to take customer service to the next level and give customers the total experience they are looking for.
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