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Imperatives for Optimizing the Customer Experience

How companies can use exceptional customer service as a key competitive advantage.

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Arguably the best differentiator for companies in today’s competitive and, for many industries, an increasingly commoditized marketplace, is to deliver exceptional, memorable customer experiences. Done well, stellar service can build customer loyalty, boosting retention rates, market share and new business referrals, agreed CEOs gathered for a recent roundtable discussion sponsored by Chief Executive and Walker Information.

steven-walkerBoth anecdotal and quantitative research underscore the point, noted Steven Walker, chairman and CEO of Walker Information. “In our work with companies, we continually see that those companies that are really successful with customer experiences have better financial results. And when we recently worked with Chief Executive to survey 400 CEOs, 40 percent of respondents listed the customer experience as their top strategy for differentiating their companies in the marketplace. What’s more, the next-ranked two methods—talent and product—are typically the main components of what you deliver in a customer service.”

At the same time, providing exceptional experiences isn’t always as easy as it sounds. “How to know what consumers really want is one challenge,” pointed out Alfredo Timermans del Olmo of Telefonica Internacional USA. “Because sometimes they lie. They tell you, ‘What I love is a great price,’ but then you change the price and they don’t respond the way you expected.”

OrthoNet CEO Roger Shedlin is addressing that issue by seeking ways to quantify the service equation. “It’s a little hard in the healthcare space, but we look for ways to track how we’re doing,” he reported. “Renewal rates are one metric, but we’re trying to dig down in the areas of provider abrasion and insured friction to identify and measure the pain points for our customers.”

At a time when a massive amount of information is increasingly available, companies able to collect and analyze data to predict, rather than respond to, customer needs will have an edge in the service game. “The question is, what is the next generation of innovation and features that we will bring to the customer?” said Patrick Dempsey, CEO of Barnes Group, whose company recently began serving end-consumers in addition to providing parts to industrial manufacturers. “To understand what the [end] customer really would like to see, we’re going very forcefully after that voice of the customer with surveys and through the use of third parties to collect data.”

customer-service-4As important as data can be, simply listening to customers and acting on what you hear can make all the difference, noted Paul Greig, CEO of FirstMerit, who recounted having a revelation after meeting with a customer early in his tenure. “I’m sitting in a meeting with the owner and the banker, and they’re talking back and forth about playing golf when the CFO comes in, sits down and, within the first eight seconds she says, ‘When am I going to get a response back on my loan? I’ve been asking you for a month, and I haven’t heard back,’” he recounted. The comment prompted the discovery that turnaround times on loan requests at the bank were far too long.

“Within literally 30 days, I put a new policy in place that there should be a 24-hour turnaround on those financing requests,” said Greig, who reports that by addressing issues like that one by one over time the bank brought its poor customer experience scores into the top 10 percent. “I went into a company that had very bad customer experience and the executive team had to substantially change systems, processes and really just behavior in the field to change that customer experience. Today, we’re viewed as one of the best in the industry.”

To deliver a consistently strong customer experience, companies must extend their efforts across every touchpoint, noted Farooq Kathwari, chairman of the home furnishings design company Ethan Allen. “In our business, you can do a fantastic job, create a terrific product and then, if you don’t do the delivery aspect well, everything is lost,” he said. “Customer service encompasses the entire integrated chain, every element of the business, from the concept of the design through engineering and manufacturing and also the delivery of the product.”

About William Freedman

William Freedman
William Freedman, MBA, is a business & technology journalist and consultant in New York City. He is also CTO and content manager for the startup BoroughCon.com