The Customer Experience

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One of the most fundamental values any organization can own is its brand. While some view a brand as the logo of a company, it is important to note that there is much more to take into consideration when we talk about building a brand. While branding goes deeper than the logo for a company, the logo can be the trigger point for people to recall every bit of good or bad information they have gathered about a company over time. Branding is the term to describe the reputation of a company and everything, from an employee’s presentation, to the condition of the product, to the way they drive their trucks, contributes to that reputation. The idea of customer service is broad based and focused on the relationship between the employee and the customer. A company only focused on customer service is missing the opportunity to support and promote the brand of the organization. Company perspectives must evolve to incorporate the idea of the ‘customer experience’ into the fabric of the culture of the company. Two key pieces of the customer experience are the employee builds relationships with a customer and works with difficult customers.

Customer perception drives the customer experience. While it may not be fair, perception is reality. Managing that perception is the responsibility of the front line and includes everything: location, employee presentation, phone skills, website functionality, email etiquette, and more. What the customer sees is the reality. For example, an employee comes to work wearing a dirty shirt untucked from his pants and a rip in his jeans. While he may be in line by wearing the company’s uniform, the message to the customer is that this person is slovenly and unkempt. The employee is a representative of the company and this reflects on the company values as a lack of attention to detail. An employee who does not take pride personal appearance will struggle to connect and build a relationship with the customer. In addition, the employee damages the company brand.

The perception of the employee may start with the physical appearance but more weight is given to how the manager and customer engage with one another. With the boom of e-commerce, it is very probable that the client will never even see the employee and so how the customer is treated becomes the only opportunity to impress the customer. Whether the customer contacts a representative of the company via phone, email, or in person, the customer’s expectation is that the employee will be friendly, knowledgeable and effective at resolving the question or determining how best to help the customer. Each of these opportunities for interaction is explored in more detail to identify opportunities for improvement.

The phone experience is a great place to impress a customer. The ideal experience is for a customer to call and have a live person pick up after 2-3 rings. Many companies today utilize confusing phone trees or other automated services to save money on employee costs. While these systems probably do save money, the company loses the opportunity to engage the customer from the first ring. A second critical piece of the phone experience is for the employee who answers to speak clearly and with a friendly tone and build a relationship with the customer. Many times, a customer can tell if an employee is having a bad day just based on the tone of voice used on the phone. Another customer frustration occurs when the employee speaks too fast or is unintelligible on the phone. Once past the initial greeting, the conversation moves to addressing the reason the customer called. In this phase, the employee must show that they are knowledgeable and personable while resolving the customer issue. Personality plays a key role in how Zappos employees connect with their customers (Chafkin, 2009) on the phone. At Zappos, employees are hired based on their personality and ability to support the company value of PEC – Personal Emotional Connection (Chafkin, 2009). Each year, Zappos employees are required to write an essay on ‘How to Wow,’ which is included in an anthology of essays kept at Zappos HQ (Chafkin, 2009). This focus on the role the employee plays in the customer experience via the phone has led Zappos to be one of the most successful online retailers.

Almost every company in existence today uses email and how an employee responds to a customer through email can support or hurt the customer’s relationship with the employee and company. The 24-7 nature of email has led to expectations from the customer that an employee or company will be almost immediately responsive through email. In addition to response times, customers judge the company based on the style of writing and errors in the writing. The customer also wants the answer to his or her inquiry responded to in a knowledgeable and helpful manner.

Companies can address building relationships through phone and email by investing more in the training of the employee. At Zappos, there is a one month training period followed by an offer to pay the employee $2,000 to quit (Chafkin, 2009). This allows the company to eliminate potential problem employees who are not engaged in the customer process and will not support the company values. Bruce Temkin (2006), author of the book The Six Laws of Customer Experience, also encourages the investment of employee training. Temkin explains that the employees are the front line and an investment in the employees will pay off with high standards of customer service (Temkin, 2006, p. 6). Training is a critical piece of the employee’s role in the customer experience and can help eliminate issues in the employee’s response to the customer and provide the knowledge needed.

Another measurement of the quality of the customer experience is how an employee works with a difficult customer. It is much easier to fail when handling dispute resolution than it is to get it right! Employees can fail in many ways. First, the employee will fail if he or she does not listen to the customer or interrupts as the customer is explaining the situation. The employee may not like the tone the customer is using or may feel attacked and try to interrupt and stop the flow of communication. This is very frustrating for the customer because the customer feels like the employee does not care about the situation. The solution is for the employee to recognize that this is not an attack on him or her personally, but an opportunity for them to shine if they can resolve the issue to the customer’s satisfaction. To do this, the employee should listen to the customer’s situation in entirety and ask questions that help uncover all sides to the story.

The next challenge after listening to the customer is accepting responsibility for the experience the customer is going through. A poorly trained employee may become defensive and refuse to accept responsibility. A defensive employee will place the blame anywhere but back on themselves and the company. This is not productive because again, the customer’s perception is reality. It is not possible for an employee to ‘win’ an argument with a customer even if the employee is technically right because the customer’s perception will always be the customer’s truth. The solution for the employee is to realize that the customer is providing valuable feedback and that they have an opportunity to fix the situation. Once the employee has an understanding of the customer situation, it is time to apologize. Many employees will balk at this step because the employee feels like they are telling the world it is their fault. The truth is that it does not matter who is at fault, and the employee can still apologize for what the customer is experiencing without assigning blame for the problem. The apology will help establish an empathetic connection between the employee and the customer and pave the way for resolving the situation.

The third step in working with a difficult customer after listening and apologizing is to ask, “how can I help?” This question effectively empowers the customer and gives the customer control of the conversation and the situation. In addition, the customer’s solution may be very different, and possibly less expensive, than what the employee may have given as a standard response. For example, a clothing company printed the wrong size logo on the customer’s shirts. Usually, the printing company policy would be to replace the shirts for free with the correct logo. In this case, the customer was asked, “how can I help you” by the employee and the customer then suggested a 25% discount. This solution helped both the customer and the printing company.

The final step in working with a difficult customer is to share the experience with others in the organization. If a company does not learn from past mistakes, it is impossible to keep them from occurring again. Many companies use internal sources like a company newsletter or reward employees who display initiative and outstanding customer service skills. A manager may use a meeting to publicly recognize the employee and share the story with other members of the team. Regardless of how the information is shared, a company focused on providing an amazing customer experience must learn from service issues to create solutions.

A company’s brand is the most valuable asset the company owns. Providing an outstanding customer experience requires training employees to effectively communicate with the customer and build relationships. In addition, how an employee resolves a customer’s issue impacts the customer’s perception of the employee and company. A company that can successfully train both of these skills will ensure a successful customer experience.

References

Chafkin, M. (2009). The Zappos way of managing. Inc. Magazine. Retreived from http://www.inc.com/magazine/20090501/the-zappos-way-of-managing.html#/magazine/20090501/the-zappos-way-of-managing.html/4

Temkin, B. (2006). The six laws of customer experience: The fundamental truths that define how organizations treat customers. Waban, MA. Temkin Group.