Posted by: communicationcloud | March 17, 2011

How other companies can affect your customer experience (without even trying)

Mapping the journey

Across all sectors, businesses are beginning to pay more attention to the end-to-end customer experience – the cumulative experience of what it’s like to be a customer of that company. Typically, you do this by looking at individual touchpoints with the business along the customer journey, finding out what it’s like to be a customer at each of those touchpoints and working out ways to improve, where needed.

For many businesses, this way of thinking about customer experience is very new. Typically, businesses are more used to treating research, purchase, and customer service as unrelated stages in their customers’ interactions – because different teams in the business deal with customers at each of these stages. Instead, the business has to recognise that what happens in one stage affects how customers feel about other stages. Make it difficult to find information about products and customers are less likely to return for future purchases; be difficult to deal with if a customer has a complaint you won’t get recommended to other potential customers.

Dealings with your company are only part of your customers’ journey

Thinking across business silos is undoubtedly the best first step for making customers’ experience of your company be just what you want it to be, consistently and at all stages in the journey. What we often forget, though, is that the customer’s journey doesn’t actually begin and end with their contact with you – and their experience of interacting with your company is affected by their experience with other companies. How much should we be considering this when we’re improving customer experience?

The customer experience effect was brought home to me recently when I spent 2 months doing a complete refurbishment of my new home. I spent a lot of time on websites researching and comparing bathroom components, furnishings, white goods …, I bought online and from stores and subsequently returned some purchases, I arranged delivery times, I phoned to find out why my sofa didn’t have any legs. You get the picture.

I don’t have favourite stores for a lot of the items I needed, so I was open to considering any website or shop for my purchases. The effect of dealing with a variety of businesses was fascinating. Some examples from my experience as a customer will hopefully help illustrate…

Example: Positive experience created by sequence of websites visited

One online bathroom store offered great prices but didn’t give any detailed information about the products. No sizes and no photos other than the main one (white porcelain against a white background). Another site offered this detailed information, but had unhelpful categories that made searching for the right product difficult. A third site had very usable search functionality.

As I dealt with the first 2 sites (great prices; detailed product information) I became frustrated with the experience. When I arrived at the 3rd site (great search) I was relieved to be able to look for the right products with confidence that if they were on the site, I’d find them.

So my emotional response to the 3rd site (relief) had nothing to do with that site in itself; as a customer of that business, I was on a journey that began with competitor sites creating a growing sense of frustration so that by the time I became a customer of the 3rd site I felt very different about it than I might have done if it had been the 1st site I used. I’d likely still have been a happy customer searching for products on this site, but I wouldn’t have had that sense of relief.

This is related to the effect that I’ve seen show up frequently in conversations with customers. Often when you ask people about positive experiences they tell a story that explains how their expectations were low because of previous bad experiences with other companies. The narrative behind their enthusiasm goes something like this: I was expecting to have a hard time because that’s what it was like previously … I didn’t have a hard time (in fact, it was easy and pleasant) … I think your company’s customer service / website / sales team are amazing.

Example: Low confidence created by dealing with multiple purchase processes

Having made a number of purchases, both online and in-store, I was expecting a lot of deliveries. At one point I had orders open with 14 different companies. Each company has its own, subtly different, way of arranging deliveries. At some companies, you select and confirm a delivery slot when you order; with others you get a phonecall or email within 3 days of the order or in some cases 3 days before the delivery; sometimes you can expect a text or email or telephone reminder of delivery, sometimes not; sometimes you need to be available to receive the delivery, other times it isn’t necessary; and some stores don’t deliver to you – instead they deliver to your local store and you collect from there.

This was complicated. It’s not that there was anything in particular wrong with any of the various ways of arranging delivery. The problem was that I was dealing with multiple processes at once, which left me confused and with low confidence in whether all the deliveries had been arranged successfully. In other words, the confidence I felt about whether delivery would be successful for a company had little to do with the company itself – it had more to do with my context of multiple purchases from different businesses (though companies that let me check on the status of my purchases and deliveries reduced this effect). The one exception was Amazon, where I’d already had a lot of previous interactions that gave me a high level of confidence in delivery.

Example: Additional learning curve associated with dealing with a different processes

Dealing with lots of different companies meant dealing with lots of different customer service processes. I found I’d bought several items that I wanted to return, and the differences in returns processes meant there was a learning curve for each company I was dealing with. For one company, I found I could take items (even those bought online) back to the store, another required me to phone them and arrange pick-up, another let me arrange it online, and for another I had to find my own delivery company to arrange the return. Of course each of the experiences of dealing with each of the companies had its own impact on me, but there was also a cumulative effect too.

The need to re-start my investigation of how to go about dealing with the company each time realized I needed to return an item meant I approached each return as a bigger task than I would have if I already knew how the process worked – because for me each returns process was the first time; even when I returned several items to the same company at different times, I had to research the process again each time. Just because a company’s process was simple,  it didn’t mean I remembered it!

This is a similar effect as you get when you look at designing account management systems for a bank or utility. It’s very likely that your customers have multiple bank accounts or have to deal with various utility companies, and this leaves them with a mix of log-in processes, and account management functionality enabled online or requiring contact by phone or in writing. Unless the customer is dealing with your processes regularly, they don’t remember your processes – so making a transfer or paying a bill online is effectively a new activity for them each time and you need to offer information to support them with this.

How to respond to the effect of other companies affecting your customer experience?

I think this is worth spending some time considering. I don’t have a complete answer right now, but my first response is that when designing customer experiences, as well as thinking about each of the contacts your customer has with you (your end-to-end customer experience) you also need to learn from the way user experience designers approach the design process, and get a really good understanding of the context of customers’ interaction with you as a whole and apply that knowledge to your design of processes and websites.


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