Customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator by the year 2020. And for good reason. It improves long-term relationships, defines your brand, solidifies your reputation as an industry leader, and creates more opportunities for new business.
Unfortunately, up until now, customer experience has often been overlooked. But it’s one of the simplest and most cost-effective and successful methods to grow your business. Here’s everything you need to know about customer experience to reap these (and other) rewards.
What do new and returning customers look for in a business?
The most obvious answer is great products and service. But, it turns out, that’s just plain wrong. The real question is not what customers buy but how they buy it. Here are some ways they make those decisions.
- Subconscious decision making. It’s no secret that first impressions matter. But did you know that a lot of the customer experience begins in their gut? Customers make instinctive choices when buying products (a function of the subconscious or irrational brain), but when asked to articulate how they came to their decision (via their conscious or rational brain), things often get lost in translation. Which brings us to our next point...
- A combination of great online reviews, word-of-mouth recommendations, and a well-branded digital marketing package. It’s important to address subconscious impressions through great branding, word of mouth, and glowing reviews. All of these influence buying decisions and can be achieved through customer experience.
- A stellar customer experience. High-quality customer interactions create a downstream value source often overlooked by businesses and will soon be the biggest reason why your customers buy from you.
Now that you know the power of great customer experiences, let’s take a closer look at what they are and are not.
What is customer experience?
In a nutshell, customer experience is what customers (new and returning) think about your brand. And businesses often disagree with their customers when asked to define how well the overall experience went. That might be because most managers confuse experience with service.
The difference between customer experience and customer service
Although these terms sound the same, they’re quite different. Customer service refers to a single aspect of the customer experience, usually in the form of making a purchase or asking an employee for assistance. Customer experience, on the other hand, also involves brand interactions that go beyond person-to-person exchanges.
Examples of these include things like predicting future purchasing needs and sending well-timed upgrade offers or branding that reflects the same personal values or beliefs the customer has. So while your customer service strategy might be one facet of your customer experience strategy, the latter requires a bigger, more detailed plan of attack.
In this great video on customer service vs. customer experience, Patrick Bet-David explains that it’s all about the details. He provides examples from well-known brands that you can use to model your own strategy moving forward. These frameworks outline what’s possible, but because every business, product, and customer combination is so different, there’s a lot of room for creativity (more on this in a moment).
Was customer experience this important in the past?
Customer experience has technically existed since the concept of exchanging a product for currency first came about. But it wasn’t until recent years that we started taking a serious look at how businesses interact with clients and how those interactions make clients feel on an emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual level. And while the past two and a half decades have almost exclusively been just about brand, the present and future of commerce seems to be all about experience.
This is a subtle yet significant shift. Branding relies on creating logos, messaging, and content that tell audiences what to think about your business. Customer experience, on the other hand, is based on learning what audiences think about your business and finding new ways to improve the relationship you share. So while branding takes an authoritative stance, customer experience naturally lends itself to professional collaboration.
Why is customer experience trending now?
The number of U.S. businesses that make customer experience a priority has increased to 53% since 2010 (the total number now exceeds 86% of customer-centric business structures). Customer experience strategy is, by its very nature, a tactic that puts the power in the audience’s hands. Or rather, it’s one that acknowledges the power was always there to begin with. And with social media, public review sites, and new feedback-collecting enterprise tools, the average consumer has more options than ever before. So it makes sense why customer experience is trending now; advanced technology has empowered consumers to play an active role in their relationships with businesses every single day.
Creating your own customer experience framework
A customer experience framework is made of all the things that power client and business relationships. It’s easy to think of the framework as divided into a few large categories with smaller components within each one. While yours might have its own unique set of categories, most businesses can count on using the following sections:
- Employees. This includes everyone from managers to customer service representatives. Companies that make customer experience their #1 priority have employees that are 60% more engaged. Employees who genuinely enjoy their job, like the brand, and have strong communication skills help improve customer experiences overall.
- Strategy. Experimenting with new techniques, systems, and tools until a noticeable improvement in customer experience is reported is well worth the investment. Your vision, however, is what will really define your ability to succeed in this arena. Examine existing customer journeys as well as any data you’ve collected that can help point to patterns (good or bad).
- Tools. If it can be used to communicate with your audience (on or offline) it belongs in this category. A mobile-first customer service platform combined with great CRM and project management software is a good place to start.
- Performance. And finally, the last step in any great customer experience framework — the execution of all the above elements. They work in collaboration with one another to put your plan into motion. Over time, employee, strategy, and tool performance will need to be evaluated, assessed, and possibly changed. But the most important step is just to begin.
The important thing to remember in all of this is, of course, the customer. Their individual relationship with your business is biased and will completely vary from person to person. You can’t control their feelings, cultural perspectives, or personal preferences. But you can control how you choose to build a relationship with them, which is the ultimate goal.
What makes a great customer relationship?
Here are some fundamentals you might already be practicing along with others you may need to double down on.
It’s the backbone of all great customer experiences. Your team should be communicating well with each other as well as your customers. There are lots of ways to make sure your customer experience game is on point, including making sure you’re fully staffed, having a fully updated customer contact list ready to connect to email and SMS texting tools, and allowing your customer service team to collaborate with marketing over day-to-day social media operations.
Good customer experience example: Your client wants to know when they can expect to hear about an upcoming project stage. Their email is received and routed to the best possible recipient who then responds in 24 or less with an updated graphic, summarizing what has been accomplished so far and what they can expect to receive in the near future.
We’re in a new era of hyperconnected customer experience thanks to technology such as data from our internet-connected devices and telematics, which link our smartphones, watches, etc. to the cloud every minute of every day. Once there, AI can sort, process, and analyze our information against millions of similar inputs to form a smart response for our customers. Despite being tech-centric, AI leads to more profitable and personal interactions.
Good customer experience example: You have a small team that services customers in a number of different timezones. In order to help answer frequently asked questions tailored to their account, you adopt a chatbot tool that can capture customer submissions and perhaps even formulate a solution based on their account. Either way, customers receive immediate service no matter who is available or what time it is.
It can be tough to piece together what a customer says they want and what their goal actually is. But conversations that focus on transparency, collaboration, and honesty are the most successful in helping brands realign with customer expectations. Frequent check-ins that offer supplemental materials and resources can also help articulate progress every step of the way.
Good customer experience example: Your client is on a tight budget and has never undertaken a project like this one before. You ease their nerves by providing a fully transparent look into its progress, complete with relevant reporting and analytics that help build trust.
It’s a big trend in customer experience for a reason. Time is everyone’s most valuable resource, which means that if you can go out of your way to save a little bit of it for your customers through convenient features, tools, or services, they’ll greatly appreciate your efforts.
Good customer experience example: Experimental retail stores have done away with check-out lines, registers, and counters. Simply grab your product and get scanned as you walk out the door.
When given the option, consumers prefer people to bots. In most first-world countries, more than half of all consumers enjoy the experience of talking to another human being rather than a corporation pretending to be human-like. Even if you use brand personality in regular communications, casual conversations add welcome flavor to the exchange.
Good customer experience example: Besides sending out email newsletters with company updates, your brand also shares donation links to charities you endorse, showcasing your underlying values and interests to all recipients.
Simply put, everyone enjoys being acknowledged and appreciated. Whether it’s a recent membership upgrade, a customer anniversary, or a simple act of kindness, being authentically grateful in speech and action is an important foundational element your team must adhere to in order to improve customer experiences.
Good customer experience example: A customer shares a post on social media about their great experience with your team. In response, you reshare the post, thank the customer for their kind words, and privately offer them a free perk or discounted service.
Empathy plays an important role in customer experience that goes beyond making simple apologies for business missteps. To incorporate better emotional intelligence practices into your daily processes, write down and review a variety of situations customers might encounter. Then consider what their motivation would be and how it would make them feel. Use these answers to guide responses to real-world scenarios.
Good customer experience example: A frustrated customer sends an emotional email about how they no longer want to work with your business. You see the message as an opportunity to resolve the conflict, start a dialogue, and provide a solution that makes them feel better, even if they don’t end up remaining on your roster. Your kindness and genuine concern for their feelings helps them better understand (and forgive) the communication breakdown.
First, you need to make sure customers have an array of options for providing feedback. At a minimum, your business should send customer surveys and be available via social media. Then, once they do submit their thoughts and suggestions, you need to actually use their ideas.
Good customer experience example: After receiving helpful feedback, your team includes the suggestion in a newly released product update. You give a shout-out on social media, tagging the commenter and thanking them for inspiring change. You can then follow up privately to give them exclusive access to the result of their feedback.
Now that you have these core values in place, it’s time to take a look at specific and actionable ways you can start upgrading your customer relationships sooner than later!
How to improve customer experience through better project management
Here are some tools, tactics, and ideas to improve customer experience that you can experiment with.
1. Manage resources more effectively.
Sometimes all it takes to improve your customer experience practices is to revamp what you already have. Take another look at your resources and how you manage them. Although there may be challenges present now, taking control of this area will help avoid spreading employees too thin. Your ultimate goal should be to ensure the right people are assigned to the right projects.
Additionally, you can support your teams by doing any (or, ideally, all) of the following:
- Using a smart system with real data to distribute the workload so no information slips through the cracks and employees can have maximum visibility into their (and their teammates’) responsibilities.
- Take employee availability and relevant skills into account when assigning work hours. (Your project management platform might already have an add-on resource for this so be sure to double-check.)
2. Build more realistic timelines.
Besides having a robust project management software to help you visualize the process and safeguard against anticipated roadblocks, you can reduce customer disappointment with certain fundamental tactics. These project timeline best practices include:
Factoring in task dependencies. Which steps piggyback on other ones, and how can your team account for delays without letting them snowball?
Adding greater accountability. Project timeline visibility can really help with this step. In fact, Fast Company says the future of your company depends on it.
Identifying implicit tasks and prioritizing them accordingly. Common sense or obvious steps that help complete key objectives aren’t always accounted for. But they’re a great place to trim fat timeline-wise. So go ahead and get them out in the open to see which can stay, which can be automated, and which can be permanently removed.
3. View customers as design elements, not data generators.
The most successful customer-driven project management strategies are based on this philosophy, which basically means that customers are not separate entities looking from the outside in, sending in data meant to be crossed off your to-do list. Instead, they should be viewed as primary components of the project, deeply integrated into the creation of the project.
But it doesn’t stop there. Additionally, as you design the product, you should also “design” the customer. Do they know everything the product can do, how to get their desired result, and what to do if they make a mistake while using it? If not, it’s up to you and your team to not only create a product built for them but also make sure they thoroughly understand it.
Bringing them into the process helps do exactly that, creating a more enhanced (and efficient) customer experience all around. And if you really want to boost your collaboration efforts, make sure you adopt a cloud-based platform so everyone has easy access to status updates, new project notes, and real-time reporting.
4. Properly align project expectations before kickoff.
How will the project be measured and what parameters will you use to gauge success? These project planning questions will most likely be answered by your customer’s goals. Have a conversation with them to get crystal clear on their desired outcome and what benchmarks they’re hoping to reach along the way before you even set a date for the kickoff meeting.
Not only does this improve customer experience by showing them how dedicated you are to bringing their vision to life, but you can also feel out how achievable their desires really are. You may even suggest different or more realistic ways to measure success, along with examples of documented proof you can supply along the way should they want to be more involved in each step. Which brings us to our next point…
5. Make sure to keep the process transparent for your customers.
A great customer experience is one that lets your clients feel in control. Or, at the very least, aware of what’s going on with their project. After investing so much into it, it’s only natural that they would want to have easy access to real-time updates and information they need to make decisions.
It helps with customer engagement too. A transparent process helps them feel connected to it in a tangible way. It also instills a greater sense of trust in your team because at any moment, they can check in on their own to view progress, scan for roadblocks, and monitor how various situations are handled.
And if white-glove service is your goal, transparency is one way to automate that sense of special care and attention without actually creating more work for your team — a total win-win for everyone involved.
6. Centralize customer feedback.
Most businesses don’t see customer feedback as a make or break but they really need to. Not only is it the best resource for new leads and referrals, it’s also great for improving customer experience. To get the most out of customer surveys, inquiries, and tickets, businesses need to streamline this process.
All you need to do is store your customer data in a centralized hub. Not only will you keep better track of replies, but you can also do things like assign clear stakeholders to each submission and notify anyone involved in resulting tasks that need immediate attention. Going a step further, you can also use visual markup tools within the hub itself to help minimize ambiguous feedback without any extra back and forth or unnecessary meetings. Simply annotate, comment, or edit any message before forwarding it to the responsible parties.
So as you can see, keeping customer feedback all in one place is a driving force for collaboration. Instead of delaying responses with competing viewpoints, businesses can more efficiently receive, review, and respond to customers in record time.
7. Provide a centralized communication hub for both customers and teams.
The more efficient your team is, the better experience they can provide for the customer. First, everyone will thank you for making their inboxes less crowded than usual. And second, the level of efficiency a centralized communication hub provides you is unparalleled. You can easily mass-invite employees to a new project, send emails from within the hub to outside addresses, comment and approve elements within messages, and update individual task requests (which are then automatically updated your project dashboard).
8. Help employees be flexible when objectives change.
As we’ve already hinted, one of the key components of stellar customer experience is great project management. And great project management requires giving employees the tools they need to handle a variety of challenges, including those caused by evolving goals or changes made to the primary objectives. The best defense for this issue is a great offense — preventing issues that could cause delays or otherwise force clients to involuntarily reevaluate their goals. To do this, you’ll need a great project management tool to help you anticipate challenges and track progress along the way.
But change is inevitable, so even when you do prepare, you might still have to course-correct well into the project. To maintain a great customer experience, you’ll want to make data-backed decisions, take quick action, and create a detailed plan for how to move forward, all of which will require customer input. But having a system in place to help you and your team navigate it all will show clients that you can be flexible and still provide top-quality service no matter what.
9. Choose the needs of your customer over strict adherence to process.
As we just mentioned, flexibility is important for maintaining great customer experiences. Flexible project management requires fast response times, the ability to reallocate resources, and the foresight to realign tasks in a way that prevents any further delays. Sometimes that means going outside of your usual process. Getting creative with project management is a real possibility and can even improve customer experience. Here are some ways to do it without going over time or budget:
- Test out new project management tools or techniques. Proven methods that are new to you or your team might yield fantastic results.
- Invite customers into the creative process behind the scenes. Again, visibility is key to great customer experiences to make sure you give clients this freedom.
- Facilitate creative collaboration wherever possible. If there’s wiggle room for suggestions or brainstorming, allow your team to collaborate on these issues. As long as you have a platform in which to do so, they’ll always create effective solutions.
10. Send a project dashboard in regular or weekly customer updates.
Any business can email their client to say the project is going well. But the business that emails the client a positive update, along with a project dashboard that shows them what tasks have been completed, what tasks are in progress, and what’s left will hands down win the customer experience game. Increasing client satisfaction can be that easy.
You’re ready to improve customer satisfaction in all areas of your business!
Now that you understand the full meaning of customer experience, you can focus on creating great relationships through better project management. Use these and other expert tips to fill out your customer experience framework and remember to always use relationship fundamentals to guide your interactions.