Are You (Customer) Experienced?

Anders M.R. Sørensen has a surefire way to make sure customers don’t change channels when they receive marketing communications from his company.

“I always ask my staff, ‘Would you spend time on this if you were a customer?’ and ‘Would you be happy to receive this?’” says Sørensen, CMO of Danish television and broadband provider YouSee. “If there is even the slightest hesitation in their response, it usually indicates that there’s room for improving the customer experience, or perhaps even dropping the activity altogether.”

In the cutthroat realm of television and Internet services, Sørensen’s approach makes sense. After all, any mistimed, poorly messaged, or otherwise ill-conceived marketing communication can break brand promises and send customers scrambling for the remote to change providers. That’s why a growing cadre of marketing professionals across industries says that marketers absolutely need to play a more active role in understanding and managing customer experiences.

“Marketing can drive positive customer experiences,” Sørensen asserts. He emphasizes the importance of targeting the right customers at the right time, an activity his company uses SAS analytics to achieve. The first step to improving the way marketing manages customer experiences involves defining the term. Kerry Bodine, VP and principal analyst of customer experience at Forrester Research, says her firm defines customer experience as “how customers perceive their interactions with your company.”

Too many marketers focus on only a portion of those interactions, notes Bodine, who finds that most marketers invest the majority, if not all, of their time in customer interactions in the earliest stages of the customer lifecycle. The stages of this customer journey, according to Bodine, include discovering that a company has an offering; evaluating the offering; buying the offering; accessing the offering; using the offering; getting support if the offering poses problems; and then reengaging with the offering or leaving the relationship, depending on the resolution of those problems.

“My research indicates that most marketers don’t get involved with customers’ interactions beyond the first two to three phases of this journey—and that’s a shame,” Bodine says. “Marketers need to make sure that the interactions they’re influencing at the beginning of the journey transition seamlessly with those interactions that follow.”

Doing so requires marketers to focus on many areas, including the original brand promise and how this promise is being kept—or shattered—in marketing communications and in the contact center.

Brand promise: Keeping it increases loyalty

The argument for why marketers should take a more active role in managing customer experience is straightforward. “Customers are more loyal to companies that keep their promises,” says Bruce Temkin, managing partner and customer experience transformist at Temkin Group. The customer experience is reflected in the extent to which those promises are kept.

“If marketers set unrealistic expectations with their efforts, then customers will likely have disappointing experiences,” Temkin explains. “At a minimum, broken promises lead to unhappy customers.” Over time, broken promises can inflict greater damage: distrust, abandonment, and negative word of mouth. “The lack of realistic expectations in marketing also has a negative effect on employees,” Temkin continues, “who become disenfranchised when they see the company making promises to customers that they know it can’t keep.”

Bodine’s research also shows a strong, positive correlation between customer experience and two loyalty metrics: likelihood to repurchase and likelihood to recommend. “We also find a negative correlation between customer experience and likelihood to switch to another provider,” Bodine explains. “In other words, the better a company’s customer experience, the more likely their customers are to buy again and to tell their friends, and the less likely they are to take their business somewhere else. When we put that entire equation together, we find that customer expectations influence customer perceptions and customer perceptions drive loyalty.”

Despite the strength of these arguments, both Bodine and Temkin report that many marketing professionals give customer experience short shrift. Although Temkin sees a “new breed” of marketers emerging who “are looking at the entire customer lifecycle and seeing how they can communicate the brand values at the right time, in a way that drives long-term loyalty,” he stresses that this shift remains in a very early stage. And, he adds, “there are a lot of marketers who continue to focus on their traditional goal of filling a pipeline with whatever it takes.”

That focus should be expanded, and marketing communications and the contact center represent two ideal expansion sites.

Communications: It’s all about relevant content

You’ll have to forgive SurePayroll VP of Marketing Scott Brandt if he sounds like a publisher when he discusses his function’s role in helping existing customers learn more about his company’s offerings.

“As a B2B business, we do everything we can to produce content to help our customers,” says Brandt, whose company, a wholly owned subsidiary of payroll-software giant Paychex, provides online payroll services and relayed solutions to more than 40,000 small business customers. “Relevant content builds loyalty.”

When customers trust SurePayroll not only as a “high-level service provider, but also as a peer they can rely on to answer business questions, it strengthens the loyalty we gain from those customers, even if we aren’t able to measure it,” Brandt adds.

Brandt and his marketing team constantly calibrate the type and timing of the content they send to customers. “We don’t want to over-communicate with them,” he says. SurePayroll sends quarterly email newsletters that contain how-to articles, tips, and case studies featuring customers. The nature of the content is determined by surveying customers for their interests and conducting regular “editorial meetings,” which Brandt has with Jamal Ayyad, the company’s head of customer care. “He always shares with me the top 10 reasons for the thousands of customer calls we receive each month,” Brandt says, adding that he generates an editorial calendar from those topics, as well as the customer surveys.

While a fair amount of newsletter real estate is dedicated to guidance on how customers can fully leverage all the software functionality and related tools, a significant amount of content does not relate to SurePayroll’s core offerings. “We ask our customers what information they want from us,” Brandt notes, “and they’ve recently asked us to write about marketing processes, expense management tactics, and other business processes.”

Although SurePayroll doesn’t quantify the impact of the newsletters on attrition or loyalty (as he has done with other programs; see side bar), “we know it’s a valuable activity,” Brandt says. “We use the relevant content to develop and build upon a sense of community. That’s our real goal.”

Contact Center: Where expectations sink or swim

In their book Outside In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business, Forrester’s Bodine and coauthor Harley Manning recount holding a conference call with the head of customer service and 12 of his direct reports at a well-known retailer in the United States. The executive had asked Bodine and Manning for help crafting a customer experience strategy for its contact center. “We said, ‘Great! Tell us about your company’s key brand attributes,” Bodine recalls. She also recalls that she and her colleague heard nothing by the troubling sound of silence in response to their question. “None of them had any idea of what this iconic retail brand stood for,” Bodine continues. “They tried to explain that the marketing group was on the other side of the country and that they never talked to them.”

You won’t hear any crickets chirping when Michael Clarkin, VP of marketing at outsourcing company Sykes Enterprises, responds to marketing’s customer experience responsibilities in the contact center. “In the call center, marketing has an incredibly important role,” Clarkin asserts. “The call center is one point in the customer experience lifecycle where the customer expectation is met or not met. And call center representatives have to respond and react in a way that’s consistent with the brand promises and customer expectations that have been established.”

There is no magic bullet for successful customer experience management in the contact center, says Clarkin, whose company’s roughly 45,000 employees handle contact center operations for nearly 300 client companies, mostly B2C brands across industries. Instead it requires vigilant monitoring, savvy managing (including the ability to transform softer skills into activities that can be monitored), and a commitment to staving off drift.

“Over time, many call centers drift and become a cost center,” Clarkin says. “That’s a common situation.” It’s also an understandable situation. After all, successful contact centers thrive, in part, via a killer focus on efficiency: How can we handle transactions as quickly as possible? There’s nothing wrong with efficiency, but it is rarely the only facet of any brand promise.

Clarkin and his team recently detected and corrected this transactional drift beginning to take hold in the contact center operation Sykes Enterprises runs for a large family company that offers seasonal consumer products. They did so, in large part, because they’re constantly monitoring and listening to call center conversations via several methods, including Verint Enterprise Feedback Management (EFM), a survey platform that collects and analyzes feedback from customers.

As Clarkin and his team listened to calls, they noticed that nothing was bad, per se, but many of the conversations were lacking any connection to the brand. The client company’s brand promise hinged on helping extremely loyal customers strengthen their family connections, yet the contact center conversations sounded as if they just as easily could have been focused on selling and servicing lug nuts.

The company redesigned elements of the call experience so the agents would voice a more personal tone, even when the calls were transactional in nature. To do so, they identified specific behaviors they wanted agents to display, including noticing and mentioning the fact that a customer had a lengthy history of purchases, mentioning what a caller purchased the previous year. Contact center leaders embraced those behaviors and measured performance against them and integrated them into training activities.

“The chance of this occurring on human goodwill alone is low,” Clarkin says. He says the marketing function should play a key role in this process by “interpreting the brand reputation and helping to turn it into an operational framework that customer service can use to make sure that they deliver the desired brand experience rather than merely a good transactional experience.”

This requires a lot of interactions and discussions—as opposed to the silence that greeted Bodine and Manning’s question. “We told [the retailer] that we really couldn’t help them until they had a better understanding of their brand and sent them off to forge a relationship with marketing,” Bodine recalls. “But we never heard from them again.”

That’s likely the case because that marketing team was content to measure its performance based on the strength of traditional campaigns and metrics.

“But if you’re a marketer who wants to drive long-term business success, then everything marketing does should be about the customer experience,” Temkin explains. “Every brand message they create, every communication they develop, every advertisement they place, every product they specify, every element they touch [should be] about the customer experience.”

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