Time to make customer experiences more rewarding
Focusing more on the customer experience will help marketers to protect their brands against price erosion by building longer-term relationships and customer advocacy, according to Dr Gary Edwards, EVP of client services for Empathica.
Many marketers still believe that when the economy contracts, the best way to compete is to offer lower prices. While this is clearly true in some vertical markets, Edwards argues that improving the customer experience is more likely to retain customers while preserving pricing, profits, and true brand loyalty.
It's becoming obvious to retailers that the business with the lowest prices isn't always going to win in the long term. Value often makes sense in retail, notably when a high-priced item isn't much different from a mid-value one, but what happens to consumers who enjoy sharing experiences rather than just purchasing a tangible product?
If they take their partner to the cinema regularly or like to go out with family and friends for dinner, do they downgrade their expectations on these experiences when their disposable income declines?
In a difficult economic climate, consumer spending obviously does decline. However, less well understood is that, counter to this trend, consumer expectations will also rise. If a couple cuts their dining out visits in half (say every two weeks instead of once a week) their expectations of good service and a memorable experience is heightened at the same time.
However, declines in discretionary spending by consumers results in understandable cutbacks by retailers and restaurants, but it is essential these are done with care in order to minimise their impact on the customer experience. The long held business profitability adage of "doing more with less" has translated in recent years into a consumer mindset of "get more for less".
Businesses must therefore ensure they keep their employees focused on customer service, even in the face of cutbacks and compromises. It's essential that companies get staff working on the small yet important details that make service experiences memorable for customers, and ensure these happen every time.
Staff must be held to account on "romancing" their customers with thoughtful and helpful moments on every single occasion. For most retailers, this can be as simple as ensuring their staff make thoughtful product recommendations rather than simply reciting the specials of the day.
It's important that staff engage with customers and look to build rapport whenever possible. Intentional focus and attention to the needs of someone is foundational to rapport and relationship building. For example, if you're in a restaurant for the first time and unfamiliar with the menu, a quick tour of what others like, a personal favourite, or even just pointing to something the restaurant is famous for are all positive ways of welcoming and engaging the customer. This also serves to build anticipation of something tasty and in so doing, enhances the overall experience and perceptions of the product when it arrives.
Most notably, none of this "romancing" requires extra labour or budget. Most moments of engagement and rapport building are just that: brief but important memories of someone taking an extra 30 seconds to listen and say or do something thoughtful.
Whether in a restaurant offering a menu recommendation, or in a grocery store being walked to a product the customers is looking for, these moments of truth are actually significant differentiators for multi-unit enterprises. They create positive emotional memories of the occasion, the location, and the brand. As such, these memories tend to feed the habits of the customers, binding their loyalty, often also winning them over as brand advocates.
Multi-unit enterprises such as retailers and restaurants therefore need to strive not only for improvement (i.e. raising their standards) but just as diligently working through operational details and ensuring consistency in their day to day operations. In retail and hospitality environments there are many behavioural and environmental cues that need to be considered when setting service expectations with customers.
For example, is there a greeter at the entrance of the store or restaurant and, if so, is this the most valued employee (e.g. a restaurant owner who is welcoming and hosting) or one of the least valued employees who knows little about the business?
It's also important to attend to 'pain points' in the customer experience. The most obvious is payment, as no customer enjoys parting with their money. Think about how most retail and restaurant experiences end on this note: The customer pays and, unfortunately, in too many instances the server (who has a talent for rapport building and service) senses the customer's discomfort and is evasive. Customers are routinely abandoned at the end of their experience and left to find their own way out.
But we know from basic psychology that both the first and last impressions are the most easily recalled. There is some wisdom in the traditional Chinese fortune cookie that is served with the bill: in a small but important way it puts a smile on the customer's face to help counter the pain of payment.
For example, in the check out process at more than 5,000 Hallmark stores, Empathica identified the important final cue that produces customer loyalty: to offer an affirmation of the thoughtfulness of the card or gifts being purchased, and well wishes for the occasion. Looking for a final way to connect with the customer and ensure that the last memory is a positive one helps to drive repeat business and recommendations for others to use the same store.