Shaping the Perspective of Your Customer’s Experience
Leading academics, business researchers, and practitioners from best practice companies often conclude that paying attention to the quality of your customer’s experience is essential. Customer loyalty and purchase decisions are influenced by the “little things” that are often overlooked in many organizations.
Yet many executives express difficulty when they try to earn support for actions that might yield improvements in the experiences of their own firm’s customers. One executive shared, “We are still too much an engineering firm, driven by metrics, and anything that seems soft to the executive team just doesn’t make the grade. It’s easy to sell an energy efficiency initiative or a new make-vs.-buy recommendation as long as the numbers supported the decision, but anything that requires “an act of faith” just won’t fly.” We don’t think this executive’s experience is in any way unique across manufacturing firms.
The challenge is translating discussions about customer experience from soft concepts to hard metrics. Nevertheless, we have found three situations that provide explicit evidence as to why customer experience matters.
1. Customers Don’t Soon Forget
During the countless executive interviews we have conducted that span nearly every industry, we frequently ask individuals to share a success story and a horror story involving a supplier with which they had dealings. What was remarkable was that nearly a third of these horror stories involved an incident that had happened more than three years prior to the interview. Many dated back as far as ten or more years prior.
It’s a mistake to think that a bad customer experience will soon be forgotten. In fact, the opposite is true; it’s likely to haunt your firm for a long time to come. And the two findings that follow compound the problem.
2. It’s a Small World
Often, we find that the customer has a broader, more comprehensive view of its company’s relationship with a supplier than the supplier has of the relationship with that customer. And, similar to the case above, news about a customer experience seems to travel the globe quite well.
There’s another dimension to the small world phenomena. Industries are often compact, and there’s quite a bit of professional mobility within an industry. A substantial number of the horror stories that we’ve heard began with, “When I worked at Company X, …” Customer experiences quickly cross company boundaries, and become part of the folklore in other firms in the industry. Especially for the individuals that experienced a problem that impacted their performance, a bad memory remains vivid even after they’ve moved into another position at another company.
Unique experiences stand out, and frequently dominate the day-to-day experiences that are routine and unremarkable. For example, in an interview with an executive of a packaging firm, we heard the following story: “We had a critical order coming in. The delivery truck arrived at our loading dock and as we opened the doors a couple of mice ran out. Other than that, the truck was empty. The supplier never loaded the truck, and sent it over a thousand miles with nothing in it!”
When recounted, we learned that this horror story happened over ten years ago, and in the most recent seven years, our client had met or exceeded the on-time full-delivery standards set by this customer organization. The interviewee that told the empty truck story later offered the following, “My advice to your client – put some focus on logistics, to make sure that when an order is placed it actually gets delivered.” One very extreme, and very old, experience had shaped the perspective of this customer.
Although generalizations are false, it’s evident that customers are willing to generalize from a bad experience and use it to characterize a supplier, fairly or not. As a result, the message to suppliers is clearly one that motivates constant attention to the details that ensure high-quality customer experiences all of the time.
For every horror story that we’ve heard, there have been far more success stories shared. In both cases, these stories are long remembered, widely shared within the firm and outside the firm’s walls, and are often used as the basis from which to make generalizations about a supplier. Firms that are successful in delivering positive customer experiences are rewarded for doing so, at least in the characterizations that their customers use to describe them.
Quantifying the bottom-line impact of customers’ opinions of their suppliers, positive or negative, remains a challenge. Even customer satisfaction survey results and net promoter scores cannot be easily converted to bottom-line metrics, nor do they always capture these situations. But there’s no doubt that the everyday experiences of your customers shape their perspectives, that customer memories are long, that those perspectives are widely shared, and that a single notable experience can define the way in which a customer organization thinks about a supplier.