person standing lost in a hedge maze
PHOTO: Maksym Kaharlytskyi

Customer experience. It’s a term that meant little to organizations even 10 years ago, and even now might still elicit eye rolls from executives. Despite that, American Express research found a significant increase in consumer satisfaction in recent years. However, that success comes with the consequence of increased expectations, and the awareness that better service is likely available makes customers less tolerant of poor treatment. The same study indicated that a third of consumers will consider switching brands after just one unsatisfactory occurrence.

“It's like everybody woke up two years ago and said, ‘Customer experience? That's the new thing? It matters?’” said Christa Heibel, owner of CH Consulting Group. “I feel like we've just had this corporate epiphany that contact centers matter and are really the frontline in consumer engagement. And there is this huge scramble to try and figure out what does that mean and how to do that right.”

“The common mistake is not paying enough attention to details in the relationship and focusing too much on the front part of the relationship, the sale,” said Sami Nuwar, customer experience embedded expert at Medallia. “If you think that the relationship ends after the purchase, you're fooling yourself.” The question, he says, is a “chicken and egg scenario: are we here to make money? Or are we here to serve customers? And and are those mutually exclusive?”

Keep the Customer Satisfied

In the past, dissatisfied consumers had little sway and minimal impact if a company treated them poorly or failed to solve a problem. The advent of social media changed all that. Now a single tweet or post recounting a negative experience can reach a multitude of followers.

“[Customers] have much more power today than they used to have in terms of impacting a brand’s reputation,” said Erin Van Remortel, strategic account executive at Astute. “Brands need to have a strategy and attitude that takes this truth into account.” Strategies that previously served enterprises well may no longer be relevant. “[Many companies] live in the past and believe that the way things have always been done is the way they should continue to be done when in fact the consumer has changed dramatically,” she said. “What they expect, how they live, how they work, how they communicate, shop, etc. is dramatically different, and companies are not adjusting quickly enough.”

“The great service brands know that clients are fickle and create their cultures around the customer experience they are driving towards,” said Fred Stacey, general manager and co-founder of Cloud Call Center Search. “The world has shifted to a focus on reducing friction in all customer interactions and showing genuine and unique appreciation for your customers before they have a problem.”

Related Article: Why Are Companies Investing in Customer Retention?

Aim for Advocacy, Not Loyalty

Many companies take a customer’s loyalty for granted. Yet loyalty is often the result of convenience rather than an affinity for a product or service: the coffee shop closest to your office, for example. Viewing this indifference as loyalty could prove disastrous when a competitor puts forth even the smallest effort to win over this customer. One strategy is to reframe the approach: don’t aim for loyal customers. Aim for advocates. 

“Loyalty is one thing, but advocacy is different,” said Nuwar. “If you're an advocate, you're a salesperson ... an extension of the sales force.” A loyal customer might recommend a business. An advocate will champion it. “A recommendation is less powerful because that's like you asking me what would I consider right and then I give you my response,” Nuwar said. “Recommendation is sort of a reaction to a question that you would get. Advocacy is proactive.”

It’s also possible to create the reverse, however. A company that is only focused on the bottom line may see short-term gains but the strategy can ultimately backfire. Nuwar recalled an instance where a system error resulted in users who had canceled a service still being charged for it months after the fact. When these understandably upset former customers raised their concerns, a short-sighted executive seemed unphased, preferring to keep the unethical revenue stream intact.

Treating customers this way only ensures that they “will be the opposite of an advocate,” Nuwar said. “They will tell people how much they hate you. And here are the specific reasons why, and here's the money you're costing them, and the time and aggravation.”

Related Article: Advocacy vs. Community: What's the Difference?

Mistakes Happen. Find Solutions.

Even the most prepared enterprise will drop the ball from time to time, and this is where effective customer service will make all the difference. Companies like JetBlue and Zappos earn acclaim for allowing employees to get creative and consider every customer interaction on an individual basis rather than forcing them to meet strict guidelines. This tactic has won them not only increased appreciation but plenty of positive social media word of mouth.

“Companies make mistakes but the way they empower their staff to make it right is critical in any bad situation,” said Stacey. “This component of empowering people to do the right thing is one of the simplest and cheapest ways a company can ensure their customer experience has the best chance of being positive.”

The push towards data-driven decision-making also gives companies valuable information that can improve the customer experience. However, they should not make the all-too-common mistake of collecting data and then ignoring it. “When you're looking at any of this brand loyalty and retention versus the need to win back, make it as quantifiable as possible,” said Heibel. “We should never be sitting around in a boardroom as a bunch of executives wondering if something's working or wondering if something needs to be tweaked or could be improved. We should have the data set to quantify that.”

A mistake doesn’t need to be the end of a customer’s journey — in fact, it could work to a company’s benefit if handled correctly. “At the end of the day, if the brand addresses the mistake, owns up to it, and tries to make it right, the customer can most definitely be won back,” said Van Remortel. “Research shows that when a bad experience is turned around, the customers are actually even more loyal to the brand than if the bad experience had not happened in the first place.”

“Ultimately, the customer wants to feel heard,” said Heibel. “And then they want reassurance that whatever the problem was, you're doing your best to resolve it or have resolved it, and then if you can throw in a benefit, a gift, a discount, a free bill, those are kind of the basic steps to making amends, but that will only work one time.” That may be the key companies need to remember. Customers are willing to give a second chance following a poor experience, but they’re unlikely to give a third. “It's futile unless you're winning back with the learning attached to it, with an adjustment, with the fix in place.”