Before Angela DiFabio bought her Mini Cooper last September, she'd been dreaming about it for a year. The Philadelphia-based Accenture consultant spent untold hours on the company's Web site, playing with dozens of possibilities before coming up with the perfect combination: A chili-pepper-red exterior, white racing stripes on the hood, and a "custom rally badge bar" on the grill.
When DiFabio placed her order with her dealer, the same build-your-own tool — and all the price and product details it provided — left her feeling like she was getting a fair deal. "He even used the site to order my car," she says. "That made me feel like I was getting the same information that he was, that I wasn't missing something."
While she waited for her Mini to arrive, DiFabio logged on to Mini's Web site every day, this time using its "Where's My Baby?" tracking tool to follow her car, like an expensive FedEx package, from the factory in Britain to its delivery. "I think most places you go to for a car, if you order one it's just a big black hole," says DiFabio. "To be able to check the process made the wait exciting. It definitely gave me a feeling of control in the process."
Being in control. Not missing anything. Making the wait, if there must be one, exciting. It's how every customer wants the service experience to be. And it's what Mini USA — whose customers must usually wait two to three months for their cars — is using technology to do. The Web site does more than just provide information or sell products or services. It keeps customers engaged, and when they're more engaged, they're usually happier, too. "Our ultimate goal was to make waiting fun," says Kerri Martin, Mini USA's marketing manager.
It's not that Mini's technology is groundbreaking. Rather, it makes an impact on the customer experience because of how it's integrated with the brand: It's fun, it's individual, it makes users feel like part of the clan. Many car Web sites have build-your-own tools, but few are as customizable as Mini's, where the choices are endless and the onscreen car image changes to your specifications. The tracking service, which is fairly unusual, acknowledges and soothes customers' anxiety and impatience — and perhaps stretches the nervous-parent metaphor a bit. In the "scheduled for production" phase, for example, the tracking tool assures them that their Mini "will begin to move through the 'birth canal' at our Oxford plant. . . . Rest well knowing that your baby is in the best of hands."
The challenge for Mini is meeting the high expectations of such eager customers. Critics note that some dealerships aren't as integrated with their Web site as they should be. And when expectant Mini owners, who it turns out are a pretty fretful bunch, found a way to track their cars through independent shipping companies, some customers were upset that Mini's tool wasn't updated as quickly as the information they were finding on their own. To try to adjust these customers' expectations, Mini added an online video that explains everything that has to happen in the port and why its online tool might be slower than the independent data. It hasn't appeased everyone, but it has helped soothe some anxiety.
Some of Mini's technology is just for fun: Stay on the Mini site too long, and a pop-up window tells you to "save your retinas for the road." Owners are emailed birthday cards when their Mini is a year old and sent notices when new features are available on the site. DiFabio, who christened her car "McGregor" (no relation), looks forward to these messages. "Emails I get from other companies feel more like an ad. This feels more like a club."
Runner-Up: Harrah's Entertainment
When a "lucky ambassador" greets a Harrah's guest at a video-poker machine by name, wishes her a happy birthday, and offers free tickets to a show, luck has nothing to do with it. The moment customers insert their loyalty card into a slot machine, the casino giant's $30 million-plus customer-relationship-management system reveals every move they've ever made at any of its 28 properties. "If you start to have a really unfortunate visit, you start to think, 'Man, that place is really just bad luck,' " says Gary Loveman, Harrah's president and CEO. "If we see that coming, we can intervene" with perks to soothe the pain of gambling losses. While many companies struggle to employ CRM successfully, gathering massive amounts of data without using it to benefit customers, Harrah's is building on its mastery. Next year, its slot machines will spout real-time monetary credits and dinner coupons using new customer-recognition software and hardware, leaving even its losing customers feeling a little luckier. — DS
Runner-Up: Sharp Electronics
Knowledge-management software, which helps call centers put consistent answers at customer-service reps' fingertips, is often long on promise and short on delivery. The problem? Reps have to take time out from answering calls to input things they've learned — putting the "knowledge" in knowledge management. Says Brad Cleveland, who heads the Incoming Calls Management Institute: "The software is just a tool. It doesn't do any good unless people across the organization are using it to its potential." Sharp Electronics is making it happen. It was Sharp's frontline reps who built the system from scratch. And as Sharp rolled out its network over the past four years, reps' compensation and promotions were tied to its use. As a result, the customer call experience has improved dramatically: The proportion of problems resolved by a single call has soared from 76% to 94% since 2000. — JM
A version of this article appeared in the October 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.