In the past, suppliers could count on customers not knowing what competitors were offering in product features, services and prices, but now customers have all that knowledge at their fingertips.
This shift in power is causing virtually every supplier to shift focus from product and service differentiators to customer experience. The best thing a supplier can do now is provide a superior customer experience that not only covers all the fundamental elements of customer focus, but also stands out from the rest.
Customers are looking for convenience and simplicity. They will no longer tolerate poorly designed voice menus. They want to buy from companies that understand them at a finer level, as individuals rather than as members of a category. They want to do business with companies that reach out to them in more than one way, but in a consistent manner.
Many organisations are adjusting quickly to these new market dynamics. A recent Gartner survey of senior executives found that most understand the trend, with 89% of respondents planning to compete primarily on the basis of customer experience by next year.
Many companies now have a chief customer officer (CCO) and the industry has coined the term customer experience management (CEM) for studying the needs of customers and focusing on customer experience as a key differentiator.
Taking a holistic approach
Forward-thinking companies are taking a holistic approach to customer experience. They are now striving to delight customers during all interactions, across all channels.
These companies are doing what Gartner’s customer relationship management (CRM) research vice-president, Kimberly Collins, sums up in this way: "In a hyperconnected world of people, businesses and things, the concept of ‘customer’ is redefined, and the ability to provide seamless customer experiences, from mobile devices to face-to-face interactions, and from phone calls to social media, is what will differentiate those that succeed and those that fail."
A perfect example of this trend towards customer experience as the key differentiator is mySupermarket.co.uk, a price comparison shopping site and mobile app that enables users to compare grocery prices before making decisions.
Through the UK website and app, consumers have information power. They get up-to-date pricing, promotions and availability information from a number of supermarkets, presented in one place to allow them to make informed decisions.
The mySupermarket.co.uk website and mobile app exemplify the trend towards customer experience, not only because they provide customers with information that they could not easily get before, but also because mySupermarket.co.uk has worked hard to provide a consistent user experience across channels.
When the website first appeared in 2006, users would go to it to shop for groceries. But now the site is much more elaborate, providing pricing and promotions from 11 UK retailers. It gets most of the latest information by “scraping” data from the retailers’ websites.
The accompanying mobile app was first released in July 2013, and has gone through several iterations. The most recent version focuses on improving the "user journey".
"Before this latest release, the app was similar to the website. At the beginning of the journey, the user would pick a retailer. Then all the inventory, offers and prices would pertain to that store for that session," says Gili Dailes, senior UX (user experience) designer at mySupermarket.co.uk.
"Customers would add products to their baskets and then be able to compare prices with information on the right-hand side of the screen. Even though customers could get some information about prices from other stores, the session would be in the context of the one store they selected at the beginning of the session," she adds.
"The newest version of the app gives users the ability to shop for the best price. We now allow users to explore all the different stores in one session. They can search by product and compare prices, or they can develop a list of products and see the comparison of all products at once," says Dailes.
"Users can also select the supermarkets that are closest and most convenient to them. They can go to several supermarkets, knowing which products on their list are cheapest at each one."
To steer product changes towards enhanced customer experience, the development team at mySupermarket.co.uk works with customer support to get feedback as close to the customer as possible. They also follow reviews to see what people are saying online, and sometimes send out customer surveys.
But perhaps the most efficient way to understand customers is to actually watch them as they use the app. "We get some of our users to agree to have somebody follow them round a store and ask them questions to get a feel for how those customers use the app," says Dailes. "We might point out features that they didn’t use and try to find out whether they didn’t see the feature or whether they just didn’t want to use it."
Dailes says there are some things companies can do to improve customer experience. “The first thing is to listen to your customers. Understand who your clients are. Understand their needs. You can do this through surveys or by watching users.
"Another thing that is really important is to have a policy of constant improvement. Rather than look for major changes, look for slow and constant improvement over time, based on feedback. You are always going to have people who shout quite loudly about what they want, but that’s not always the most useful feedback. Look for feedback that represents the majority of users," she says.
Read more on customer experience management
Upgrading IT roles, amending measurements, structural changes and a cultural shift from internal to external can help the CIO improve CEM in the IT department.
Organisations are faced with the challenge of delivering their customers with an online experience that goes far beyond just a website.
Connect to the user
As for how to structure software development, Dailes says organisations can no longer get by with just software designers and developers. "They need people who can connect to the user and make sure the rest of the development team join up the dots. All aspects of development should revolve around creating the best user experience. If the experience is good, the user will return," she says.
One key point to remember about maintaining a consistent user experience across channels is that consistency does not mean uniformity. Each channel should provide functions that are natural to that channel and fit into what the user might be doing while accessing that channel. For example, mobile app users are probably walking around, so they should enjoy the user experience they expect while doing so.
Each channel should also highlight the strong points of that channel. A laptop or desktop channel should make use of bigger screens and greater processing power; a mobile channel should make use of location; and a good old-fashioned telephone channel should make use of the warmer interaction customers might expect between two human beings.
Consistency means similar messaging and branding. Repeat slogans and images across channels, and be equally customer-focused from one channel to another. Consistency also means keeping track of sessions and data from one channel to another. When users start a shopping list on the web, they will want to see the same shopping list within a second or two on the mobile app.
The new customer relationship management
Treat CEM as the new CRM. CRM has always strived to collect information from all customer touch-points and provide consistent information to customers at each touch-point. Like CRM, CEM should take a 360-degree view of the customer.
Whether CEM replaces CRM, or whether the two operate hand-in-hand, companies should take a more holistic approach to how they reach out to customers.
Adopt a company-wide strategy for CRM and CEM, and avoid projects developed within silos.