While many companies think they’re leading the charge with service quality and creating an innovative, truly great customer experience, the numbers tell quite a different story … in the eyes of customers, most companies are falling flat.

Today we’re going to scrutinize what companies are doing incorrectly and highlight how to fix these problems.

What is customer experience strategy?

As Hubspot defines customer experience strategy:

“If customer experience (CX) refers to the sum of every interaction a customer has with a business, both pre- and post-sale, the customer experience strategy defines the actionable plans in place to deliver a positive, meaningful experience across those interactions.”

8 ways to improve the customer experience

Avoid reading the following at your own risk, since we’ll be spotlighting why less than 10 percent of companies are receiving a passing grade from customers!

1. Stop imitating and start innovating

When it comes to delivering an outstanding customer experience, far too many companies are content with simply “keeping up with the Joneses.”

In one Forrester survey of 100 customer experience professionals, 58 percent of respondents said their firms drive customer experience innovation by closely watching what their direct competitors are doing, and a full 72 percent look to outright copy companies in other industries.

Kerry Bodine Headshot

Research analyst Kerry Bodine argues that the embarrassing amount of copying taking place is the reason why “good enough” is the disappointingly low bar to which many companies now strive:

“Citibank wanted to copy the Apple store so badly that it actually hired the same architects responsible for the Apple store concept to design its bank of the future. Imitation may be the highest form of flattery — but it’s not innovation.

There’s more risk in copying your competitors than you may think. First of all, they might not know exactly what they are doing; even if they do, it doesn’t mean that what works for them will work for you.

Even worse, many companies are not seeking to imitate the industry leaders, or those businesses most known for their customer experience. According to the Forrester analysis published in the Harvard Business Review:

“13% of companies said that they’ll settle for nothing less than having the best customer experience across every industry — in other words, these companies want to be the next Apple, Disney, or Zappos.”

That leaves a whopping 87 percent of companies who will settle for less than the best when it comes to their customer experience!

We’ve previously shown you the data on how 80 percent of companies believe they are delivering superior service to their competitors. In light of these admissions, it’s easy to see why in reality they are falling flat. Consider this startling statistic from the Forrester survey:

In 2013, only 8% of the companies surveyed received a top grade from their customers for their customer experience.

The problem: Many companies think that they are leading the charge in customer experience innovation, but in reality they are OK with being just “OK.”

This sort of thinking is dangerous. You’ll never be able to convince customers to switch to your company by simply matching the passable service quality of your competitors.

Phil Derksen’s Comment about Help ScoutMany of Help Scout’s prospective customers who are currently with a competitor stay not because they are blown away by what they are paying for, but because their current experience is “good enough.”

If “good enough” is what landed the customer in the first place, do you think it’ll be enough to win them over to your business? Of course not! Remember that “OK” is not OK when it comes to delivering an experience that aims to keep customers for life.

Since the majority of companies are failing to deliver when it comes to customer expectations, following their lead will likely result in a vicious cycle. Being at the head of the pack means turning your back to them.

2. Eliminate ‘high-effort experiences’

While “good enough” won’t cut it, keep in mind that most customers don’t need to be “wowed” — they simply want their issues to be addressed as painlessly as possible. It’s more impactful to reduce customer effort than it is to engage in “delightful” tactics (that don’t necessarily scale well, anyway).

As Matthew Dixon, Karen Freeman, and Nicholas Toman, argued in the Harvard Business Review, true customer satisfaction and loyalty come from reducing the amount of effort a customer has to expend to get their issue resolved.

potential impact Source: The Effortless Experience

That’s not to say you should stop trying to delight your customers, but it’s a better use of your energy to make it easy for your customers to get help (and to reduce their need to seek help in the first place!)

3. Don’t use technology as a crutch

A great customer experience is still reliant on memorable employee-to-customer interactions. In other words, it’s still about the people. (Breaking news: The sun is hot.)

Why, then, do so many companies rely on technology as the crutch for delivering their service?

Keep in mind that technology alone isn’t the culprit here; the issue is using technology without considering the needs of your customers (“technology for technology’s sake”), which can end in disaster.

An example: A multinational auto insurance company invested heavily in a new mobile app that would connect customers to a call center agent in an emergency.

The idea looked good on paper, but it failed to account for the fact that drivers wouldn’t preemptively download the app in anticipation of getting into a car crash … and they had more pressing things on their minds than browsing an app store once an accident occurred.

The result: Another so-called innovation that failed to produce business results.

The lesson here is that new ways to improve the customer experience must be founded in differentiation and their ability to generate long-term value for the business.

Simply being innovative or on-trend won’t result in real improvements in doing business with your company.

Remember why this app fell flat, and be sure that the improvements you make are geared toward resolving the issues that actually plague your customers.

4. Rethink opportunities before acting

Academic research has shown that when it comes to brainstorming, the best ideas and most creative solutions result from looking at the problem from multiple angles. As Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

Bodine sees the lack of multi-angled investigation as one of the fundamental errors most business owners make when they seek to improve the customer experience. She highlights this point in her HBR piece:

“Companies need to start their innovation initiatives with an outside-in approach that frames their business challenges within the context of customers’ unmet needs.”

Companies should reframe and closely evaluate what customers actually want before diving headfirst into the latest favored strategy in the world of CRM. This advice seems obvious, but as evidenced in the insurance example above, companies are prone to creating apps and new tools without closely evaluating whether or not they will truly be useful to customers or whether they solve a real pain point.

Bodine continues with an example from Philips Healthcare, who gathered customer feedback by using an innovative real-life form of user testing:

“To identify new opportunities, for example, Philips Healthcare mapped out a typical day in the life of a radiologist, a key purchase influencer, regardless of whether those activities involved Philips. This approach enabled the team to identify a key pain point in radiologists’ daily work — an inability to compare one patient’s scan with those of others — that Philips already had the data for and capability to solve but hadn’t considered productizing.”

5. Infuse the experience with the brand

Many of the most memorable customer experience innovations are strongly tied to the brand that first championed them. In many instances, the idea wasn’t so much unique as it was different. Bodine points to some big brands that were able to pull this off:

“IKEA Systems’ cartoon furniture assembly instructions, Mini Cooper’s retro-inspired dashboard, and the cheerful chirp of a Zappos’ customer service rep — the qualities of these customer experiences create strong associations with their brands.”
Cartoon Style for IKEA Assembly InstructionsCartoon Style for IKEA Assembly Instructions

When it comes to innovation the more an experience feels like a specific brand, the harder it is for competitors to copy it. It doesn’t take a huge budget to pull this off, either. As the examples above demonstrate, it’s the little things that count; starting with items like a personal thank-you note can go a long way in creating an experience that customers will remember.

When your customer experience is intrinsically tied to your brand, you will naturally avoid the first problem discussed above — innovations, features and experience improvements that don’t suit your customers’ actual needs.

6. Prioritize quality support

Think of the brands that customers rave about. How many of them get away with offering crummy customer support?

Not a lot. The companies who create incredible customer experiences (and enjoy immense brand loyalty) treat customer support like a feature of their product or service: they offer free returns, no questions asked. If you forgot to cancel and got charged, they refund you — no problem.

Companies who empower their support teams — who invite their support teams to sit at the table, to be a voice for the customer, to collaborate hand in hand with product teams, to converse with customers on a human-to-human level and not only solve problems but help their customers succeed at their work — those are the companies delivering the most exceptional customer experiences today.

7. Create an experience around the business model

Bodine encourages companies to innovate in areas that best support their business model of choice. Just as choosing the right channel for customer service is critical (whether you adhere to traditional or newer online service methods), innovations for the customer experience should be based on the business you are running and your business model’s inherent strengths.

As an example, Bodine focuses on how ZipCar was able to spur on innovation where other traditional companies couldn’t compete:

“ZipCar’s car-sharing business model drove a need for keycard (and then mobile phone) vehicle entry — new types of interactions that traditional rental companies never envisioned.”

8. Be relentless about talking to customers

Or, should we say, listening to customers — since, as Samuel Hulick points out, talking to customers won’t teach you anything:

The purpose of customer interviews is to extract insights from the minds of your customers. Talking can’t achieve this; only listening can.

When your goal is to create a better customer experience, who do you think is going to be the most reliable source of insight regarding how to to that?

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Where can your company improve the customer experience and overall satisfaction while playing off of the advantages of your industry and how you do business?

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