Customer experience becomes a priority for 2007 (8 Jan 2007, The Wise Marketer)
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Customer experience becomes a priority for 2007

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The wheels of industry usually move slowly but in the case of customer experience management - the science of building brand preference by meeting customer needs and exceeding expectations - the speed has been rapid over the past year, according to CoreBrand, which suggests five best practices for a better customer experience, and ten warning signs of failing brands.

In fact, the company suggests, customer experience management has become a critical objective for most businesses during the past year or two. Customer experience teams and enhancement initiatives have emerged everywhere, and companies of all shapes and sizes are now dedicating themselves to identifying, isolating and managing their customer interactions, both to improve satisfaction and to retain their most valuable assets: their customers.

The push for simplicity
Simplicity and ease of business have become more important than the comfort of simply conducting "business as usual", according to Patrick Ohlin of CoreBrand: "We see this in our work every day. One executive, in describing the desire to make it simple, told us that his services needed to be as 'easy as Google'. Another talked of leap-frogging the competition by offering simpler transactional forms and intuitive interfaces."

Indeed, by recognising the power of everyday media and communications to reinforce brand strategy, each of those companies - and others like them - are setting a trend that will certainly gain pace over the next few years. They are breaking down functional silos, de-segregating marketing and operational budgets, and beginning the process of refocusing frequent and often-unheralded touchpoints to deliver enhanced customer experiences.

Quantitative brand management
According to Ohlin, "We know what it takes to tie strategy to implementation and to unlock brand equity. We also know that brand alignment and consistency are prerequisites for improving the customer experience - especially when the brand has been damaged by isolated events. A former financial services client estimated the savings from clarifying applications and presenting fewer opportunities for defection at some US$8 million annually."

Five steps for brand and customer experience improvement
To help attract and retain best customers, CoreBrand offers five key steps that lead to a better-managed brand:

  1. Customers return to companies they understand and trust
    Raise your conversation with customers to its most natural state of clarity and simplicity. Be honest, recognise past problems, and articulate what you are doing to fix them. Employees and partners will respect you, and customers will listen. Reward participation (i.e. the internal and external sharing of expectations and experiences). Competitive reviews can also help establish a baseline against which to compare.
  2. Revisit your company's core identity, values and principles
    Are your people and processes supporting these? If not, find out why. Think about how you gain or lose value through different types of customer experience, and map out a picture of the current state. Identify the key behaviours that impact your brand's performance.
  3. When you know where the problems are...
    After finding the main problems, run a cost/benefit analysis to determine the magnitude and value of the changes needed. If the ROI is there, go for it. Prioritize first, then set achievable goals. Focus on the most critical points of interaction with your most valuable customers first. Try to make innovative changes that reinforce your brand and demonstrate real customer focus.
  4. Consider how you measure satisfaction.
    Work with business leaders to balance financial and customer experience goals - these should always align. Fast-paced industries, such as technology, may measure satisfaction more frequently while slower, more traditional industries might use quarterly touchpoint research to remain responsive. How you present your products and services is also important: Linking product development specifications to post-sales surveys can expose innovations for which there is little demand while averting future dissatisfaction.
  5. Evaluate and quantify progress against goals at planned intervals
    Use tracking studies to maintain your focus on customers and provide a regular basis for realignment. Online questionnaires, direct mail surveys, and paid user research can all be effective ways to collect this kind of data.

The golden rule
Finally, CoreBrand warns, companies must remember why customers matter so much. The brand is a total reflection of not only the company but also of the experiences of its customers. Without customers, brands lose meaning.

But customer experiences are a constantly changing reflection of brand strategy and how effectively it is delivered, and this has become even more complex with the steady maturation of the internet.

According to Ohlin, by acknowledging the strong correlation between simpler and more transparent interactions and higher customer satisfaction scores, fewer companies now question whether returns on customer experience investments justify the expense.

Brand deterioration alert
At the same time, the problem of a deteriorating brand can be side-stepped if you know what to look for. The solution, Ohlin says, is a customer-focused approach that realigns what the company says with what it actually does. The most common warning signs of brand deterioration include:

  1. Low customer satisfaction and retention, as evidenced by low repeat business and high churn rates. Consider market research to identify causal links and define the priorities for improvement.
  2. Flat or falling market share. Evaluate competitors and potential substitutes against your brand criteria and market dynamics.
  3. Poor internal communications. Evaluate strategy, organisational structure, bottlenecks, breakdowns and competing interests. Push for organisational accountability.
  4. Low advertising and marketing spend compared to your competitors. Evaluate your marketing channels and their effectiveness.
  5. Inconsistent brand messages or themes in different places and channels. Evaluate your brand positioning and execution. If necessary, refine the core story and messaging.
  6. Influx of new or out-of-category competitors and messages. Identify your top 2 or 3 points of differentiation and press them home every single day.
  7. High customer service costs compared to industry standards. Look for ways to streamline, simplify, and improve transactional communications while cutting costs.
  8. High ratio of ad-hoc to planned communications. Evaluate your communications strategy. An audit may help you to identify opportunities to standardise and automate communications.
  9. Decentralised, or non-performance based workforce and low employee morale. Provide tools to educate and orient employees while enabling them to focus on satisfying customers. Reward those who adhere to standards.
  10. A risk-averse company culture develops. Reward innovation and risk-taking (within acceptable limits) to management, legal and compliance teams.

Patrick Ohlin is the brand director for CoreBrand, with over 13 years of experience in global corporate branding consulting. CoreBrand's clients include Allstate Insurance, Penske, Morgan Stanley, and NASD.

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