The Distortion of Customer Experience

You’re about to pay for your – not inexpensive – latte at the counter of any one of a number of high street, airport or railway station coffee bar chains and you’re asked “And would you like a Danish with that?”. Er, probably not, because otherwise you would have asked for it (after all, there’s a huge display of them in front of you).

You’re about to pay for your magazine/newspaper/stationery at WHSmith and you’re asked “Would you like some chocolate at a special price?”, whilst being shown a pile of outsize bars of chocolate, occupying the only space available to put down your goods.   You stare at the giant piece of confectionery and wonder why you’re being offered such a bizarre accompaniment to a tube of glue or box of drawing pins.

You are buying stamps at the Post Office counter (having had to walk 50 yards down the aisle of a completely unrelated grocery shop, quite possibly closed down) and you’re asked “Would you like to top up your mobile phone?”  Well, no, but the availability of mobile top-ups could perhaps have been better advertised so you could have apprised yourself of the additional service whilst you queued (socially distanced, naturally) for 10 minutes.

Why does LinkedIn think it appropriate for the feed to default to ‘Top’, rather than ‘Recent’ posts?  Why does Amazon think it is clever to make it almost impossible to not sign up for the Prime service when ordering items on its website?  What is this all about?  Where has it come from?  Why do we feel so annoyed (or worse) at these gratuitous questions and cynical tactics?

The short-term sales culture

Much like a great deal of poor direct marketing activity, the episodes cited above appear to their authors to generate a worthwhile return if (an often very small) proportion of target customers respond.  What these organizations presumably fail to measure, however, is the impact on all the other (often the vast majority of) recipients of the ‘offer’, who are not only not interested in it, but are offended by the irrelevant and time-wasting exchange.

The facile questions asked by the businesses cited earlier result in a growing feeling of resentment towards those brands, which lack respect for the customer.  For a while, supermarkets created huge numbers of frustrated customers every week, forced to use self-service tills because of the shrinking number of manned tills and subsequent long queues: ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’ became a short-hand for an indifferent cost-focused culture.  Eventually it occurred to these chains that perhaps only a minority of customers was interested in the self-checkout facilities.

The endless attempts by incentivised staff to ‘upsell’; the mindless, pushy, repetitive recording you are forced to listen to as you wait on the phone; and all the other exasperating experiences, are the result of organizational cultures fixated by the achievement of short-term sales targets.  The lost customers, lost sales and damaged brand equity are presumably never calculated.

Equally short-sighted is the lack of respect for the brands’ own staff, who are trained to make these intrusive and unasked-for offers.  The impact of demoralised staff on the customer experience, and the costs of high staff turnover, are seemingly ignored.  Yet time and again poor customer service has been shown to be the single biggest reason for customers to leave brands: unhappy and demotivated staff, often only too aware of customer resentment, create poor customer service.

Too many organizations are now driven purely by a search for short-term revenue and cost-cutting, rather than an understanding that successful and profitable businesses take a long-term view that recognises the criticality of creating brands which customers trust and return to again and again.

Businesses losing their way

The financial sector, amongst all its other abuses, is of course notorious for its lack of customer focus and short-termism.  For example, interest rate reductions are commonly not (until legislation enforces it) – or poorly – communicated, and customers are rarely informed that they would be better off switching to a more appropriate product or account from the one with the higher premium or atrophied interest rate.  Most of the high street fashion outlets have never really understood the core marketing concept of responding to customer needs: “we’re due another delivery next week” (which is always next week) is the usual response to a request for an out-of-stock size or colour.  Doubtless, this is a significant reason as to why the shift to online purchasing will not return to the previous ‘normal’ following the pandemic.

These executional issues reflect the more fundamental values and ethos of a business.  Boots has seemingly lost some of the ethical foundation it was once proud of and respected for, as well as some of its understanding of customer needs.  Not only are many of its outlets difficult to navigate, but its pharmacy counters have been pushed to the back of the store.  Why is this significant?  Because in years gone by, whilst the potential incremental sales benefit of dragging customers through the store to get a prescription filled was recognised, its ethical stance dictated that the pharmacy should be sited at the front of the store to aid the elderly, pregnant, those with young children and disabled customers who make up a high proportion of pharmacy visitors.

Getting it right

It is extraordinary that, with the availability of good CRM systems for 25 years or more, many organizations either fail to use them or – rather than using them to understand and improve the customer experience – seemingly deploy them to push more unwanted products and services.  A brand that asks you if you would like to buy something based upon an understanding of your previous purchasing behaviour is regarded favourably because it has made the effort to get to know about you.  It could be your local butcher or the online brand that you regularly buy from.  Many (many) years ago I was fascinated that in Toronto you could not only get a pizza brought to your apartment at 3am, when in the UK at the time pizza outlets closed at 11pm and would not deliver at any time of day, still less the middle of the night.  More impressively still though, the pizza parlour would request your phone number when you called to place the order, and then ask if you wanted the extra anchovies (like last time).  This was customer-focused brand-building, which creates goodwill, loyalty and ultimately greater profits, in action in a small business way back in the 1980s.

The concept of customer experience (CX) has been around for a very long time – it is intrinsic to the marketing concept, after all.  Understanding the experience of interacting with your organization versus its competitors, and taking steps to improve that experience, are meat and drink to marketing-driven companies.  In recent years CX has taken on a life of its own, however, driven by the increasing availability of data to assist in understanding and tracking the customer experience, and the potential for suppliers to provide CX solutions to clients.

Getting the context right

Unfortunately, whilst the management of the data can indeed help to provide an enhanced experience for the customer, the systems can become the be-all and end-all, rather than an aid, much in the same way that CRM systems were originally seen in the 1990s/early 2000s.  The strategic context is everything.   Identifying and understanding the customer journey for each major customer segment, as well as the utilisation of individualised data, is an essential element of developing a CX strategy.  Too many companies, however, see the customer journey as being the one that they have carefully put in place internally to guide the customer along a path to purchase, not realising that this ‘customer journey’ is not, in fact, the actual journey from a customer point of view, but a distortion of it.  As so often with contemporary marketing, a ‘push’ mentality has taken over from a ‘pull’ one.

It is yet another instance of Theodore Levitt’s marketing myopia – of not taking the customer standpoint, despite the availability of so much more information than was previously available.  The customer journey frequently starts and ends at touch points outside the control of the organization.   The moments of truth consequent upon chatting to a friend, or reading an offline review, or the slow conversion to a viewpoint over many months or even years, need to be understood to build the complete picture.  Only a customer-focused mind-set can achieve this, not computer software by itself, and this needs to be reflected in the marketing planning process.

What are your examples of poor or exemplary customer experience?

Check out the ‘How to’ resource library for a comprehensive range of documents relating to the preparation of marketing plans, as well as the practical and conceptual issues surrounding their preparation and role within the organization.  The resources include some downloadable templates and guides.


What's your thinking on this?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.