Marketer vs. Reality

Data tells stories. Sometimes, not the story one expects. Consider this: According to Forrester Research, 90% of business leaders surveyed said customer experience is critical or very important to their business. Yet, only 37% of customers that Forrester surveyed rated customer experiences they’ve had as good or excellent. Additionally, 83% of marketers say that customer experience is “among the best determinants of brand strength and business growth,” but about half claim they can’t yet measure it effectively.

Marketers’ focus on customer experience, the data suggests, has not materialized into experiences that many customers deem above par. But it needs to. Nearly 90% of customers will leave after one bad experience, according the 2011 Customer Experience Impact (CEI) Report by RightNow and Harris Interactive.

Often at issue is the disconnect between the way a brand assesses its performance and the way a customer assesses it. Customers see brands as a single entity, whether they’re clicking through an email to make an online purchase, checking out the transpromo offer on a billing statement, or tracking down a delayed package that came with a delivery promise of free overnight shipping. Brands, for their part, are often hampered by siloed databases or departmental territorialism.

Even so, marketers are able to influence important aspects of the customer experience. To do it in ways that bolster customer loyalty, increase engagement and advocacy, and boost sales requires insight into customers’ expectations and preferences. Kerry Bodine, Forrester VP and principal analyst in the firm’s customer experience research practice, says marketers can understand customers’ perceptions by asking three questions about their brand: Is it meeting customer needs? Is it easy to interact with? And is interacting with it enjoyable?

By answering these questions, marketers will have some of the data they need to tell their own story—one that will help to align the actual experience their business delivers with customers’ perceived reality. Marketers also have to improve internal and external communications, deliver a consistent experience across channels, and enhance their voice of the customer (VOC) initiatives to align their brand’s experience with customers expectations. To ensure that they stay focused on the right elements of the customer experience, marketers also need to track and measure them.

Speak up

Delivering a top-notch customer experience in the eyes of the customer means that brands need to account for every point of customer interaction—from lead generation to online interactions to the “zero moment of truth” when customers are ready to buy, and even to post-purchase, says Richard Scheig, VP of sales and marketing at analytics provider Outsell.

“In general, [inconsistencies happen] by not listening and understanding the data that’s presented to you…across that distribution cycle,” adds Stacey Ramstedt, senior brand manager at EcoTools, a provider of environment-friendly makeup brushes.

Consequently, it’s essential that, as owners of the brand promise, marketers stay connected with the various departments customers touch as they go through the sales funnel, as well as throughout their life cycle.

This internal communication and data sharing is especially important when employees have to wear multiple hats. For example, cosmetics retailer LUSH depends on its sales associates to function as marketers.

“We do believe that our marketers are our sales associates—those people who are our front line, representing the brand and creating that ultimate LUSH experience,” says Brandi Halls, director of brand communications at LUSH North America. Part of that experience is listening to customer feedback and using it to develop new products based on customers’ needs. “Then we come up with a way to best present that to our customers.”

Collaboration for consistency

Cross-departmental collaboration and information sharing are essential to that process. Both tactics are also necessary because the customer journey has changed considerably.

“The whole concept of customer experience has really turned into more of a multidimensional conversation,” EcoTools’ Ramstedt says. “It’s really about not just being in-store…it’s also broadened online to include being there for [customers] when they’re researching the product, being there for them when their friends and family are talking about the products that they use, and then also being there for them on the back end once they’ve purchased the product, they’ve used it, and they want to engage more with the brand and the brand’s community.”

Outsell’s Scheig has seen firsthand what happens when his automotive clients don’t consider the omnichannel customer experience. When a car manufacturer’s franchise owners don’t properly align their marketing communications with the manufacturer’s, it dilutes the broader brand and creates conflicting messaging that confuses customers. Conversely, when manufacturers and dealers share data and use it to inform their marketing, they can create a more powerful, collaborative marketing strategy that enhances the customer experience through consistency and cohesiveness.

Kendall Ramirez, director of customer experience and marketing at Southwest Airlines, also emphasized the importance of consistency across customer touchpoints—and  marketing’s role in ensuring it. “We want to have a consistent experience from beginning to end,” he says. “You want it to be consistent with the things [customers are] seeing on the kiosk when they get to the airport or the way that a flight attendant talks to them, or the seatback menu that’s in an airplane. You want all of those things to be consistent and to actually deliver on that same feeling and same experience.”

When a company provides that consistency, it reinforces the brand in the consumer’s mind. “It helps people feel like ‘Oh, OK, this is the same brand. This is the brand that I love,’” Ramirez explains.

Know thy customer

Internal communications and consistent messaging are two legs of the information stool. The third is the data that marketers can gather from listening to customer input and using that information, as well as transactional and behavioral data, to build basic customer profiles that inform marketing decisions and improve the relevancy of communications and offers, which translates to a better experience in the eyes of the customer. As brands accumulate more information, they can undertake more complex strategies.

“Building out a really simple behavioral profile in how customers interacted with your marketing lets you make that next round of marketing more relevant,” Outsell’s Scheig says. “It’s never perfect, but with the right technology and the right data, while not fully complete, it still allows that test, learn, and improve environment.”

One straightforward way marketers can impact the customer experience—and access customer information they might not get otherwise—is by responding quickly to customer inquiries and comments, and to make it easy for customers to send feedback. This encourages engagement and, potentially, provides brands with rich customer insight.

The Houston Airport System (HAS)—a large network comprising of the George Bush Intercontinental Airport, William P. Hobby Airport, and the Ellington Airport—keeps real-time communications channels open with its traveler customers, says Roxanne  Butler, HAS’s director of communications. Customer comments on Twitter and via comment cards distributed throughout the airport determine HAS’s customer experience amenities.

For example, customer feedback led HAS to introduce a security checkpoint wait-time tool, which refreshes every 15 minutes. Customers can confirm their wait times via mobile device. The color code reads green if the wait time is less than 10 minutes, yellow for 10 to 15 minutes, and red for 15 minutes or more. There are eight wait time-enabled check-in areas at the Bush Airport and one at Hobby. “On an average day… we have 108,000 people flying at Bush. It would be helpful to know which checkpoint, if you’re squeezed on time, has the shortest line,” says Roxanne Butler, HAS’s director of communications.

Butler says that HAS used to conduct periodic surveys, but discovered that it could deliver more efficient service by having the comment cards available all year around. “By having these cards available all the time allows us to get very timely feedback that we can go and correct right away, [often] within 24 hours.”

EcoTools’ Ramstedt also emphasizes the importance for companies to provide an outlet for customers to talk to each other—one in which marketers can listen in and learn, like a hosted online community. Her first role, she says, is building that customer community. “Second, it’s really listening to consumers, [and] allowing them to voice their opinions, and being responsive to that,” Ramstedt explains.

Sustaining the connection

Customer input can help to do more than get one-time issues resolved; it can also inform marketing communications over time, continually improving the customer experience through increasingly more relevant, timely messaging. Southwest Airlines, for example, uses targeted emails to support both sales and customer retention efforts, whether it’s contacting a Rapid Rewards point member or someone in the browsing stage of shopping for a flight.

Southwest Airline’s Ramirez knows that relevant follow-up communications can drive customer retention, which in turn produces new customers through recommendations. “Trying to get people to not only buy the first time,” he says, “but making sure that after they buy, they got the true value for what they paid, they want to do it again—and even trying to make passionate customers who want to come back again and again and talk favorably about you.”

LUSH’s Halls agrees. “Overhyping a product or selling a product that isn’t right for someone’s needs isn’t going to offer us any benefit as a business because the customer won’t come back, but also won’t share their positive experience with someone else, which is ultimately how we’ve built our business,” she says.

But if brands provide information that adds value and is delivered at the appropriate stage in the customer journey, they should be well on their way to becoming a long-term, satisfied customer. “I believe first of all to be timely with information, second of all to be transparent and open, and then also to do it on a two-way basis,” HAS’s Butler says. “You have to listen, as well.”

What to measure

With a flood of information available to marketers, prioritizing what data is important—namely, data that leads to actionable customer insights—can be an overwhelming task. Not every wrinkle in the customer experience can or should be measured, especially given marketers’ often limited resources: time, money, and employee bandwidth.

Southwest uses Net Promoter Score (NPS), which rates how likely a customer is to recommend a product or service to someone else, to measure various elements of the customer experience. Ramirez admits that some adjustments just aren’t significant enough to warrant measurement. “Whether we change the smell of the soap in the lavatories, is that really going to affect their overall NPS score?” Ramirez asks. “The tough part is trying to figure out [what] really matters. Which things should we focus our time and energy on? And then, even if it’s not something that’s big, how do you gauge if it’s the right decision or whether you’re doing it the right way?”

Forrester’s Bodine says brands need to measure perception, descriptive, and outcome metrics to get a holistic view of the customer experience.

Perception metrics, Bodine adds, measure what customers believe happened; e.g., “I was on hold for 10 minutes.” Descriptive metrics are what actually happened; e.g., the customer was actually on hold for three minutes. Outcome metrics assess what the customer will do as a result of the experience; e.g., “I’m never doing business with you people again!”

Other experts think that key customer experience metrics should focus on customer tenure, frequency of purchase, demographic, and transactional data. Effectiveness and operational metrics—such as abandon rates, budgets, and response times—can answer a brand’s questions about its efficiency.

With the right data, metrics, and communication and collaboration strategies, marketers’ influence on the customer experience can be a powerful one—one that drives retention and loyalty because marketers and customers’ perceptions of that customer experience align.

Still not sure where to begin? Start with the brand promise. Says Forrester’s Bodine: “I think one of the most effective things that marketers can do is to properly set expectations for the experience that their customers can actually expect to get when they do business with the organization.”

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