Today, customers can interact with companies in more ways than ever, across unique channels, devices, and time zones. A customer might see a company’s ad, visit their website, browse their products, read customer reviews, and go on their way—all without speaking to a single human. While technology and automation have unquestionably improved our lives, they’ve also made the modern customer experience much noisier. Countless customer interactions happen around the clock, and many fly below the radar.
Bain & Company once surveyed 362 companies, and 80% said they delivered a “superior customer experience.” But according to their customers, only 8% really did. In this age of hyperconnectivity, brands can engage their customers in more ways than ever, yet they’re failing to meet their needs.
What is customer experience, really?
The term “customer experience” gets thrown around a lot these days. But what does it really mean? If you read definitions online, you’ll find a number of interpretations. Some say customer experience is the perception customers have of a brand based on their interactions. Others say it’s rooted in customer service and user experience, which tend to influence customer sentiment the most.
But neither definition captures the breadth and variety of modern customer relationships. Customer experience certainly influences brand perception, but it’s not just about how customers feel. And while service quality and user experience play a major role in customer satisfaction, they’re not everything.
We tend to agree with this Harvard Business Review assessment, which emphasizes that customer experience doesn’t begin or end with one business function. It’s the sum of all touchpoints and interactions that occur throughout a customer’s relationship with your brand, including the pre-sale period. For better or worse, each one of these micro-experiences impacts the outcome of that customer relationship.
To be really successful on a long-term basis, customer experience needs to be seen as all these things, and more. It is the sum-totality of how customers engage with your company and brand, not just in a snapshot in time, but throughout the entire arc of being a customer. — Harvard Business Review
Where does customer experience begin and end?
Every department influences customer sentiment, whether they realize it or not. Marketing and sales tend to shape the pre-sale experience, communicating value and setting customer expectations for later. When a lead becomes a customer, the baton is passed to product, customer service, and operations. It’s their job to deliver on that brand promise and attend to any issues that crop up along the way.
While companies tend to focus on the post-sale experience, pre-sale is just as important. It sets the tone for everything else. If a customer expects great service and innovative products but the company fails to deliver, they’ll quickly regret their decision to buy. On the other hand, if that customer gets exactly what they expected, they’re far more likely to be happy and engaged.
McKinsey found that consistency is the key to happy customers. By and large, companies that deliver consistent experiences throughout the customer journey see higher customer satisfaction rates, increased revenue, and decreased overhead. So how do you get there?
5 steps to a great customer experience
Every brand may be different, but customers generally want and expect the same things. Here are five steps you can take today to improve customer experience in the long run.
1. Define your customer experience.
The easiest way to avoid inconsistent experiences is by setting standards early. Reflect on your company’s values and differentiating factors. What makes you special? Why do people want to buy from you in the first place? Then, think about your current customer experience. Are you sending the same message from pre-sale onward? Or are inconsistencies creating friction for your customers? When you have a solid sense of who you say you are and who customers think you are, it’s much easier to reconcile the differences.
2. Examine your customers’ evolving needs.
Do you think of your customers as static beings who all want the same things? Or do you honor their differences and aim to personalize their experiences based on their unique needs? Companies tend to succeed when they listen to the voice of the customer and iterate based on their feedback. By periodically checking in with your customers, you also show them that you value and appreciate their business. Not sure where to start? Learn how to build a customer survey that effectively engages your audience.
3. Identify your biggest customer painpoints.
Once you have a clearer sense of your customers needs and how well you’re meeting them, you can focus on areas of friction impacting their experience. If you haven’t already, create a customer journey map to plot the major paths customers take, then focus on the key touchpoints. Where are you underperforming? What can you easily improve? Examine the customer feedback you receive. Which issues appear the most?
4. Prioritize customer experience improvements.
After you’ve pinpointed your problem touchpoints, hone in on the glaring problems. Talk to your customer-facing teams. Which issues come up time and time again? Where do they see room for immediate improvement? If you store customer feedback in Salesforce, you can also analyze survey results alongside other key data, like customer lifetime value, in order to prioritize improvements. If one painpoint is impacting your most valuable customers, then that should move to the top of your list.
5. Make gradual, measurable changes.
With all this material on your hands, it can be tempting to start making sweeping changes to your business. But that can actually do more harm than good. Instead, plan incremental but meaningful improvements that you can measure over time. For instance, if you want to optimize your customer knowledge base so self-service content is more accessible, then be sure to measure bounce rates and case deflection rates before and after you institute that change. This data can influence customer experience improvements you make down the line.
As customers, we have endless options. If a company isn’t meeting our needs, it’s pretty easy to find an alternative. Sometimes all it takes is a Google search.
For companies, that means there’s more opportunity than ever to gain and lose customers rapidly. It’s not about price or product either. Customers are shopping for better experiences—for companies that understand their needs, make their lives easier, and treat them like actual humans. When companies prioritize the experiences they’re delivering, they’re already leagues ahead of their competitors.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in September 2017. It’s been updated for accuracy and freshness.