Experiencing the Customer Experience: Listening to, Learning from, and Acting on the Voice of the Customer

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There's a new three-letter acronym making the rounds out there—and it's already getting on my nerves. The acronym? CEM. The term? Customer experience management.

To be sure, the underlying idea is attractive. There is certainly value in a positive customer experience, and it's worth exploring the many ways in which one might design, optimize, and support this practice. Who's against giving customers a memorable and meaningful experience?

Sounds a lot like customer relationship management (CRM) all over again. Look, I am a total pragmatist. While I have made my career as a professional consultant, I'm about as far from a traditional consultant as you can get. While other consultants are rolling out elaborate CEM methodologies for their corporate clients, I have focused on providing practical, cost-effective advice on this subject.

Companies of all sizes would like to improve the customer's experience and reap the benefits. But companies should understand that the matter is far less complex than the experts would have them believe.

Consider the case of one of my clients who really "gets it" when it comes to delivering on the customer experience.

The company, Benjamin Studios, is located in downtown Atlanta, Georgia (US), in a hip and historic loft development that once housed the Hastings Seeds factory. It's a four-year-old company that is captained by a highly successful, thirty-seven-year-old serial entrepreneur named Benjamin Nowak.

The idea for Benjamin Studios was inspired by the explosion in digital photography and self-expression. As more "do-it-yourselfers" processed digital prints at home, less photos were being taken to traditional photo processing labs for professional finishing. Consumers have become fanatical about capturing all of their "magic moments" in life through the convenience of personal digital photography. Therein lies the opportunity for Benjamin Studios and its current line of retail product offerings. Consumers enjoy the option of transforming some of their best digital photos and memories into lasting works of art that can be displayed in sizes from 14" x 10" to life-size murals. The retail photofinishing industry is excited and supportive of this service because it sees the Benjamin Studios' offerings as a revenue replacement strategy for the traditional photofinishing business (prints). While some of Benjamin Studios' sales are direct to the consumer, most of its business comes through relationships with professional photographers, portrait studios, and national retail photofinishing chains, such as Ritz Camera.

During the past year, the company has been engineering some new products for the retail channel in a pilot program with one national chain. The pilot was scheduled to launch in seventy stores. In order to secure the full-scale rollout of over 1,000 stores, it was critical to Benjamin Studios to ensure that both the product and the customer experience be engineered for maximum success.

Here are a few steps Benjamin Studios took during the year to get its customers committed to its offering, and how the company used its customers' input to engineer a compelling product and deliver an engaging customer experience.

The Product Engineering Approach: Capitalizing on Customer Feedback

The product challenge was to take what was already a successful business focused on the high-end professional market, and engineer a particular offering that could be positioned in the retail market space. After about a year of product engineering, Benjamin Studios produced an offering it felt was ready for launch in a pilot program at the retail level.

From the start, dialogue was established between Benjamin Studios' customer (the retail chains) and the retail consumer. Merchandising displays were set up in every pilot store, and a representative from Benjamin Studios was sent out to spend a significant amount of time at each facility. The studio representative was charged with facilitating the dialogue and capturing its essence.

First, a discussion was initiated with the retail chain to determine the optimal placement and arrangement of the display. The studio representative would offer significant input, including suggestions and examples of how the display location had played a key role in the success of sales in other facilities. All feedback on samples, order forms, and other support items were documented—and frequently incorporated—before the next display went into the next store.

Next, a training session was conducted to educate management and key associates about the product so they would understand it and be able to effectively present it to their customers. Part of this training included handing out sample products and order forms to these store personnel. When the formal training session was complete, the studio representative would remain on-site to help store personnel hone their presentation and selling skills. This was also a crucial opportunity for the studio representative to observe and record consumers' reactions, comments, and questions.

At the end of the session, a debriefing was held with store management and associates to gain feedback on the sales scripts, order forms, and other supporting material. Again, every attempt was made to incorporate their feedback before the next store was set up.

Benjamin Studios' objective was to insure it was learning how to make its customers successful, while at the same time participating with them in the development, shaping, and design of the in-store consumer experience. The company did not wait until all stores were rolled out before acting on the feedback it received store by store throughout the process. It embraced a dynamic, iterative, and collaborative approach to product design and in-store merchandising. And, as expected, the company's sales training and support contributed positively to the image of the stores.

While this example seems simple enough, and may almost seem like pure common sense, Benjamin Studios took actions that few companies ever do. First, it seized the opportunity to acquire customer feedback from the very start. Too often when a company plans a new product or service offering, it is not as concerned about the customers' feedback as it is with getting the product rolled out and sold. All too often, companies fail to start learning from the customer until sales have failed to meet expectations. That becomes the point at which focus groups, interviews, and other means are deployed to learn what is working and what isn't. However, an extraordinary amount of money and resources can be wasted in the meantime—assuming one can even recover from initial missteps.

In this case, Benjamin Studios began to gather useful feedback and insight from day one. It also established an open dialogue and a trusted relationship with the stores. The result? Solid sales, low account maintenance costs, and a continued stream of new and constructive ideas.

Secondly, it had the confidence in its customers to take action on their feedback. It takes "guts" to listen to your customer and then to take immediate and tangible action. Too often, companies assume they know better than their customers. After all, they've spent so much time and effort developing the product or service.

But this is where companies are frequently wrong. Yes, a company's engineers, sales professionals, and marketing staff should all be intimately involved in the design, development, and rollout of new offerings. However, truly successful companies aren't afraid to let the customer drive. The immediate actions taken by Benjamin Studios as a result of customer and consumer input allowed the company to craft an optimal solution by the time the thirtieth store was online. The company got it right for its customer early on by learning and acting in the moment.

The Customer Experience Approach: Identifying and Acting on Value Drivers

In my opinion, there are two key elements to delivering a customer experience that meets or exceeds the customer's expectations. You need to understand what it is customers value and how effectively you meet those criteria. Benjamin Studios is a compelling example of how to effectively deliver and continuously improve on the customer experience.

During the pilot of the national rollout, studio representatives continued to meet with store management from the national chain to receive feedback on the product and program overall. The retail chains were impressed with the actions Benjamin Studios had taken to support the pilot stores, and were convinced that the new product line was poised to be a success.

But Benjamin Studios wanted to develop a more formal feedback loop to complement its current efforts. The company decided it needed to ask precise questions about what the stores and their customers valued, and how the products and services stacked up against their expectations. But how did Benjamin Studios find out what the stores and their customers valued? They asked, of course.

Prior to getting any feedback on performance, Benjamin Studios asked store managers and sales associates probing questions about what they value. Once the company had a strong sense of these value drivers, it set out to see how well it was performing against these expectations. A similar process was deployed with retail consumers who visited the store.

Armed with the value drivers and the terms of the pilot program to guide them, Benjamin Studios put together a customer feedback survey (see scorecard and rankings from the actual survey in figure 1). From the customer value discussions, the stores identified the top four value drivers as Customer Service, Store Setup and Training, Order Handling, and in-store Merchandising. Benjamin Studios also sought additional feedback on overall value and satisfaction to create its scorecard.

The store managers were asked to rate their satisfaction with the overall "value" for the items listed on a scale from one to ten (with one being equal to no value at all, and ten being equal to outstanding value that exceeds expectations). As you can see from the actual results, Benjamin Studios performed exceedingly well in its initial survey.

Store # 202 204 301 321 342 389 432 456 489 502
Customer Service 9 10 10 9 9 10 10 10 9 10
Store Setup and Training 7 8 9 9 9 7 9 8 8 10
Order Handling 6 9 10 8 7 9 10 9 8 9
Merchandising 8 9 10 9 9 9 8 10 7 9
Perceived Customer Satisfaction 8 9 10 10 9 9 9 10 9 9
Customer's Perceived Value 10 9 10 10 8 8 10 8 9 10
Growth Potential 10 9 10 9 7 7 8 7 8 9
Overall Store Satisfaction 9 9 9 9 8 9 9 9 9 9

Figure 1. Customer Feedback Survey (scorecard and rankings)

Looks like it's time for Benjamin Studios to declare victory and move on, right? Well, not if you're Benjamin Studios. Sure, these results were certainly something to celebrate. With performance at this level, the company seemed well on its way to a triumphant national rollout. But the studio did not throw a party, and it was not willing to rest on its laurels.

Benjamin Studios felt that, based on these results, there was room for improvement with store setup and training. As a result, in-depth interviews were conducted with store personnel to determine what actions could be taken to further increase the level of value that in-store personnel were experiencing in these areas.

Within a week, Benjamin Studios was taking action to improve the training for the next set of stores based on specific feedback and suggestions. It also created a simple selling guide and desk reference to better assist the stores in selling and supporting the offerings. As studio representatives began to revisit the stores and deliver the newly created selling guides, they made a point of telling the managers and sales staff that this new tool was created as a direct result of their feedback. Needless to say, the stores were very impressed with the responsiveness of Benjamin Studios, and were obviously motivated to continue providing feedback and insight that would help support the company's proposed national rollout.

Ultimately, Benjamin Studios did get the national contract and, as mentioned, is now in the process of "on boarding" close to 1,000 stores across the US. I would suggest the company is poised for success.

The Power of Customer Participation

As this case illustrates, customer involvement and feedback can be tremendously powerful factors in the development of a successful customer experience. Companies of all sizes can seize this opportunity, just as Benjamin Studios did, if they remember these points when involving customers in the design of the experience.

First, ask and you shall receive. You will be surprised at how much insight current and prospective customers are willing to give you if they believe it will benefit them. Your job is to convince them that it will, and then deliver on that promise.

Secondly, have the "guts" to follow your customer's lead. Make sure you are asking the right questions, that you thoroughly understand the answers, and that you are committed to taking action. Nothing frustrates a customer more than being asked for his or her input and opinion only to find out it has not been taken into consideration. If you let a customer know what became of his or her input (even if specific action was not taken), then you are building goodwill.

Understand you customers' value drivers. It is not enough to provide customers with the goods and services they need. You must differentiate yourself from the competition. You must deliver a customer experience that is personally compelling to your customers. You must see value through their eyes, not necessarily yours. Finally, you must relentlessly strive to understand how your performance stands up against your customers' expectations. Surveys, interviews (formal and informal), and good old-fashioned observations are some of the ways to make sure your performance meets or exceeds customers' expectations.

CEM need not be a mystical new consulting methodology that defies our comprehension. Rather, it's about mindset, attitude, and empathy. It's about collaborating, learning, and taking action. That's how we close the value and performance gaps that separate us from our customers. That's how we design and deliver a successful customer experience.

About the Author

Bruce Culbert has over twenty years' experience in IT and CRM solutions. He is the managing director of BPT Partners and CEO of iSymmetry and its affiliate companies. Culbert sits on the board of directors for the Center for Professional Selling at the Coles College of Business (Kennesaw University). He is a director on the Board of the National CRM Association and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Rutgers University CRM Research Center. Culbert has been named to the prestigious CRMGuru.com panel of global experts, and is a Global Advisor to Greater China CRM (GCCRM). He can be reached at bculbert@bptpartners.com.

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