In recent years, most African companies have become increasingly aware of the need to create value for their customers in the form of experiences as it is a cost-effective way to get their long-term loyalty. Unfortunately, they have often proceeded as if managing experiences simply meant providing entertainment. The issue is far more complex than that and needs a deliberate action plan.
An organization’s first step toward managing the total customer experience is recognizing the clues it is sending to customers. When we talk about clues, we don’t mean the snippets of information or bits of physical evidence. Anything that can be perceived or sensed — or recognized by its absence is an experience clue. Thus the product or service for sale gives off one set of clues, the physical setting offers more clues, and the employees through their gestures, comments, tones of voice etc. still give more clues. Each clue carries a message, suggesting something to the customer. I am not sure how many companies actually bother to find out how their employees relate to their customers. I have had some bad experiences where the lady at the reception or over the phone makes you feel like you are bothering her just because you are the one who wants ‘our business’ yet as one of my bosses always alludes to, ‘client and customer relationships are reciprocal,’. Experiences go a long way in shaping perception and opinions.
The importance of experiences helps explains how monetary issues can outweigh the customer’s consideration of price. Indeed, if all customers’ drive was driven strictly by price, no one would ever buy things like the luxury vehicles we see on the roads or some high-priced everyday products we use. Companies that have little or no sensitivity to the customer’s experience and focus only on reducing their costs to support lower prices may actually decrease the value of their offerings. This mistake is rife in most companies. They think that reducing the price is the panacea. It is not. People value experiences with products and will pay more for a product that gives them value in an experience. The question should be, are you creating platforms for customers to have experiences with your products? John Keates said in 1891,’nothing ever becomes real until it is experienced’. It must therefore be a priority for companies to make sure that at every turn customers are having an experience that will sway their buying decisions in your favour. Coca Cola has mastered this art and invest in it. Their phenomenal growth is hinged on this understanding.
A global example.
Let’s look at an international example to illustrate the value of creating customer experiences. In the early 1990s, Avis Rent A Car had declining customer-service scores. In 1994, Avis applied experience-management techniques at its Newark International Airport location, one of its largest operations. The experience design was guided by a core team of eight that set broad policy and a project team in Newark that handled day-to-day implementation.
An experience audit was conducted, complete with videotape and in-depth interviews, to evaluate customers’ needs and desires at specific points in the car-renting experience. Insights from the audit led to the development of an experience guideline based on relieving customer stress and anxiety.
For example, the research revealed that customers were usually anxious when they returned cars and concerned about making their flights. To reduce that anxiety, Avis installed monitors showing flight departure times and gates and placed them at the door of the return facility where customers would be likely to see them. The research also indicated that arriving passengers were anxious about communicating with their offices or conducting business before leaving in their rental cars. Avis created a communication center for people who needed to make calls, send faxes or plug-in their laptops.
Another set of new clues centred on the location’s security guards. While continuing to maintain security, they began to double as customer-courtesy representatives, and their uniforms and work stations reflected the change. In most cases you see security guards just opening the gate and just passing on the log book without even saying a word. In their new roles, they checked out cars for people who were part of Avis’ growing frequent-renter express program. Customers in the program could avoid going inside to deal with counter personnel, and the outside reps received coaching on actions and dialogue.
Following the implementation of the new experience design, the Avis location at Newark Airport won the J.D. Power award for customer satisfaction the next year. Within 18 months, the company’s management rolled out the experience design to other key locations that accounted for more than 65% of Avis’ business. By 1999, Avis had moved from near the bottom to twelfth in the Brand Keys customer-loyalty recognition survey of more than 140 national brands in 26 industries. In 2000 and 2001, Avis ranked number one in the same survey. This is how powerful this can be.
Customers always have an experience — good, bad or indifferent — whenever they purchase a product or service from a company. The key is how effectively the company manages the experience. Companies compete best when they combine functional and emotional benefits in their offerings. Emotional bonds between companies and customers are difficult for competitors to sever. Unlike many product or service enhancements, experiences cannot be copied.
George Damson is a coat of many colours and can be reached on
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