Why Be an "Experience" Business? Because Customers Expect It

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When brands focus on the experience rather than on the product, customers respond—with their dollars and their loyalty.

“We're no longer in the business of selling products; we're in the business of selling experiences,” Brad Rencher boldly asserted during the 2016 Adobe Summit opening day keynote session. “Products are just along for the ride…. This is our new reality.”

Rencher, EVP and GM of digital for Adobe, noted that, although many companies think differently about the how to define experience, there are commonalities that should apply across all organizations. “Consistent, continuous, and compelling should define experiences today,” he said. Rencher listed four main elements of being an experience brand:

An experience business will…

> Know me, the customer, and respect me—and my privacy
> Speak to me in one voice, always in context; that means disparate functions such as marketing, sales, and service will speak to me in with consistency and relevance
> Make the technology transparent to me; it's about the experience, not the technology that powers it
> Delight me at every turn; this means a brand will continue to disrupt itself, because today's five-star wow experience is tomorrow's one-star expected experience

One company shifting to an experience business is McDonald's. “It's a step change—one step at a time,” said Deborah Wahl, the quick-serve restaurant chain's SVP and CMO. “And we're getting rewarded for our changes.” Those rewards include having its highest-performing quarter ever in 2015 as a result of such modifications as adding all-day breakfast items and improving its digital customer interactions.

“We made a commitment over 18 months ago to move from mass marketing to mass personalization,” Wahl said. “It's a good start, but we have a lot more work to do.” Wahl explained that McDonald's had no app and “nearly zero digital interactions.” Today the QSR has thousands of app downloads and measures its social response time in minutes instead of hours—impressive considering that the brand gets mentioned in the social space every one-and-a-half seconds and needs to quickly determine which posts and comments need responses.

Wahl said that being disciplined about what experiences to focus on has helped the company achieve its current success. She defined discipline in this case as determining what you should do first and sticking with it—without getting distracted by shiny objects; for McDonald's that first step was providing offers on its app. The decision was based on customer preferences uncovered through research. “Discipline is tough for marketers because they want to try everything,” Wahl said. “It takes a lot of discipline to stay focused.”

Time for change

During his presentation at the Summit, Brian Solis (left), a principal analyst at Altimeter Group, also asserted that “the future of brand is experience.”

Like Rencher, Solis pointed out that there's a great deal of the confusion among marketers and other business leaders about how to define customer experience.

“We hear and use experience all the time, but do we really know what it means? People will describe it differently.” Solis said. “It's about helping people get to place they can't get to without you. As a marketer, experience is your renaissance.” Solis added that there needs to be a focus on using experience to create value at every point of customer interaction across the customer life cycle.

“It's almost like a brand style guide for emotions and engagement,” he said. Solis provided a more specific definition of customer experience:

Experience is the sum of all the engagements customer have with you during their lifecycle. It's not one thing, it's everything, and that should change how you think about every moment of the customer experience.

What this means, ultimately, is that company leaders have to ensure that the experiences they design are consistent throughout their organization's entire customer journey, Solis said. How do they connect? How are they measured? How do we cater to people their way? “That takes reengineering,” he advised. Solis cited Disney's Magic Band as one of the best examples of customer experience in the market today, because Disney can use data from the bands to inform and improve everything park flow to wowing individual customers with moments such as a favorite princess welcoming a young guest.

Where many executives seeking change make mistakes, Solis said, is using legacy thinking and metrics to guide future thinking. “It gets in the way,” he said, adding that business leaders need new metrics and practices and need to take risks.

Also, he said, becoming an experience business needs to be a true team effort across the organization. “I'm function agnostic as to who should lead it,” he said. “I see it play out across the organization as almost a steering committee, starting with having someone articulate what the experience is or should be.”

One of the challenges Solis sees with any one person trying to own customer experience is that he may look at it first and foremost from his own functional perspective or preconceived notions. “Don't look at it from your role out; define it from the customer view in, and then see where you're not meeting expectations and what you need to change. What will it take for the customer to love every step of the journey? If you don't act and measure holistically, [your experience effort] may be a failure.”

Another reason Solis advocates thinking about their customers' experiences from the customers' point of view: “You're designing experiences for people who are not like you,” he said, so you have to step out of your own shoes into theirs. “Technology is making us all accidental narcissists, who are impatient, as well. The new ecosystem is the ‘egosystem.'”

This new customer reality is why Solis and Rencher both assert that it's imperative for companies to become experience businesses. “Eighty-six percent of customer will pay more for a better customer experience, but only one percent of customers feel that vendors consistently meet their expectations,” Solis said, “The information democracy is making customers not only more informed, but more demanding.”

Solis's recommendation: “What if we innovate and change the game?”

Everything is unraveling, he said, citing video and mobile versus TV as an example. New economies are emerging through innovation, he added. But most companies' touchpoints are outdated to new minds and feel unnatural to them.

“We're not challenging ourselves enough to think differently,” Solis asserted, adding that some “innovations” are simply iterations of existing experiences or processes or products, instead of a complete reimagining of the possibilities.

Solis proposed use digital as a guide to rethink customer experience overall, as well as using activity-centered designed to create and improve experiences based on intention, context, and immediacy. “You have to humanize the experience,” he said. “It's not only an imperative, it's a gift: You get to reinvent [everything].”

In fact, he said, brands that don't change may find themselves outmaneuvered by companies that do. “It's not easy; there are Achille's heels,” Solis said. “But there's going to be an Uber of everything. This is your chance to innovative and disrupt [your category], and it's a wonderful opportunity.”

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