Transparency, honesty sweeten customer experiences, Gartner says

Highly personalized relationships with customers were recommended by Gartner at the research group’s annual Customer 360 Summit.

ORLANDO, Fla. ­-- Could anyone in the audience, Gartner analyst Ed Thompson wanted to know, offer as memorable a customer experience as the five-hour phone call?

More than two years ago, a customer service employee for the online shoe and clothing retailer Zappos spent five hours, 25 minutes and 31 seconds on the telephone with a customer.

What did they talk about? Shoes that supposedly create the physical mechanics similar to that of walking barefoot.

Thompson held court last week at the Stamford, Conn.-based IT research firm’s annual conference, the Gartner Customer 360 Summit.

He asked if anyone in the audience worked for a company that had any customer experiences similar to the Zappos call center agent.

It was more a rhetorical question than a true search for responses. But the message sent to attendees was that they should be in the business of making memories.

Thompson stressed the importance of the customer experience and how to create lasting impressions in a talk that looked at everything from Apple electronics to the wide sidewalks at Disney World.

No matter how large or small your company is, Thompson said, it has to make experiences with customers personalized and simple. He also suggested being consistent and transparent with customers.

Thompson offered study statistics to illustrate his points: 86% of consumers say they would pay more for a better customer experience, and those discontinuing their relationships with businesses after a bad experience increased from 68% in 2006 to 89% last year.

Interaction matters most to customers, as they make emotional connections to products and services, he said. And customer experience is all about loyalty, quality, reputation and satisfaction, he added.

Much is made about the measurement of satisfaction, according to Thompson. The CSAT -- or Customer Satisfaction Score -- is often referenced, as companies try to gauge their successes and failures with this 0-to-100 score, he said.

But the CSAT index doesn’t fluctuate that often, instead remaining constant, Thompson said. Companies should remember that CSAT doesn’t move often before taking big chances just to try to upgrade their scores, he said. They should also not forget who they are, he said.

“If you measure yourself up against everyone, you’ll have a tough time, but you should measure yourself within your industry,” Thompson advised.

He also urged attendees not to assume their companies’ CSAT scores will always mean they have customers’ complete loyalty and thus endless profit.

“Some customers are loyal just because of the extra benefits they receive for being loyal,” Thompson said. In other words, ending those loyalty benefits might end the relationships with those customers.

Thompson then referenced a survey, which he didn’t name, that said about 30% of customers are fickle. Knowing that, the best companies measure not just rational loyalty but also emotional loyalty, he said.

The key to best understanding where customers stand is getting their feedback and sharing it with almost everyone in the company, Thompson suggested.

Citing another survey, Thompson said that 95% of companies get feedback, but only 45% of them alert their staffs of the results and 35% of them actually use the insight from the surveys. Only 10% improved upon the feedback and just 5% of surveyed companies relayed to customers the results of surveys containing their own thoughts.

He advised attendees to listen, think and act upon their customers’ suggestions.

Thompson had other words of advice:

Companies need to design their processes from the outside-in, such as using a customer experience wheel to be the center of the customer experience.

They also should focus on consistency across channels -- phone, email, website, social media. As examples, Thompson pointed to how Target allows in-store returns for online sales and American Airlines sends alerts to passengers’ desktops.

Companies also need to improve access and be trustworthy and transparent. “Be clear, expect to react, be open-minded and inclusive with the community,” he said. Best Buy, for instance, has 22 million pages of content spread across four Web communities, he said.

Thompson said that as customers use social media and other channels, they expect personalized and simplified service. Nike, for example, offers a customizable homepage that reflects a runner’s route, the route’s terrain, the weather and the jogger’s mood, he said.

“Customers will share information with you as long as you provide some sort of benefit,” according to Thompson. “Come up with an offering, as long as you come up with something for me but can also scale it for everyone.”

Thompson added that companies need to consider what sort of power they give employees on the front line as they deal with customers. Should they stick to the script or have freedom to talk, much as the Zappos call agent had the liberty to chat for more than five hours?

After Thompson’s talk, one audience member said she would take some of his tips back to Ohio.

Tracy Krawczyk is the manager of marketing and communications for Emerson Network Power, a manufacturer of precision cooling and power equipment.

She said she learned new ways of measuring customer responses, and she will now use these methods to look at how her company is handling the customer experience.

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