Marketing and the customer experience

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What do Harley Davidson, Starbucks and BT all have in common? Over the past two years, they have all launched customer experience projects to advance their product or service offerings. In this work, Harley Davidson realised that the lifestyle they were selling to middle aged men and women was as important as the motorcycle itself. Customers were buying the experience not just the product.

In this article I look at marketing and the customer experience and how marketers can benefit from the customer experience approach.

What is customer experience?
As with any new thinking there are plenty of definitions around. Most identify the customer experience as all the tangible touch points between the customer and the business. For example, the customer experience of booking a hotel would start when I see the advert in a national newspaper, continue when I phone to make a booking, include my stay at the hotel and end when I get home.

However, many observers have also identified a less tangible part – recognising the emotional reactions a customer has to a particular experience can really differentiate one experience from another.

Ask a customer to talk about a great experience and a poor experience. It is likely that they will use phrases like “I felt….”, “I got the feeling…” to describe the experience they had, because they are subconsciously referring to the emotional aspect of the experience as well as the tangible experience.

How does the customer experience concept fit with marketing?
Marketers have traditionally focussed on the presentational and sales aspects of service or product delivery. Over time the definition of marketing has broadened to encompass the concept of satisfying customers’ needs in a profitable and sustainable way.

The concept of customer experience fits well with this way of defining marketing. The marketing department, as one of the most customer aware areas of a business, is well placed to take on the customer experience challenge.

However, taking on the customer experience requires a broader set of competencies and skills than many narrower marketing roles demand. Champions of the customer experience need to be able to work across a business, always seeing delivery from the customer’s point of view. They need to have a deep rational and emotional understanding of customers and their differing contexts. This depth of understanding leads them to evaluate products and services from a truly customer focussed standpoint, both rationally and emotionally.

Why should I bother – it sounds really complicated?
Traditionally, businesses have been able to differentiate themselves from their competitors by a number of factors – often focussed around quality and pricing. However, once a market becomes commoditised with customers assuming that all products are equal and differentiating on price alone, businesses need to position their products differently in customers’ minds.

In the short term this can be achieved through brand repositioning, but the gain will be short lived if the experience being delivered doesn’t match the expectations set by the brand.

A long term approach is to focus on the customer experience – make your customer experience great and customers will recognise this. They probably will not do this consciously, but they will recognise that your business is different and become advocates.

So what should I do?
A good starting point is to undertake an evaluation of your product or service from a customer’s point of view. This work often throws up surprises for businesses about how they show up to their customers.

Then you need to try to understand the emotional aspect of the product or service you provide – what is the emotional range of customers at the start of your customer experience? Does your product or service enhance these emotions or work against them? How can you do things differently to enhance emotional reactions and differentiate yourself?

Who should be responsible for customer experience?
Earlier in this article, I said that marketing departments were well placed to carry the customer experience torch. However, that doesn’t mean they are the only people involved – every single person in your company has some influence on the customer experience. People who answer the phone have a very direct influence, whilst people in HR have a very different influence as they can control the type of people the business is hiring.

In larger organisations taking on the customer experience challenge often involves trying to change the business culture – many businesses become inwardly focussed over time and need to refocus themselves on the customer and the experiences that are being delivered. The scale of this cultural shift need not be monumental – small changes and gradual shifts are easier (and cheaper) to make happen and often are more sustainable.

How can I find out more?
Much of the work on customer experience happens in larger companies who have the resources to dedicate to customer experience programmes. I believe that the customer experience approach to marketing can benefit all customer-facing organisations – the implementation may differ but the core concept remains unchanged.

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