Creating a Great Customer Experience — How, Exactly??

This morning, John Moore posted some interesting thoughts about differentiating one's business. The one I'm stuck on right now is creating a great customer experience. After all, it's the thing that started this conversation in the first place, and it's the one we still haven't really addressed head on.

So far, here are some elements that I've seen in our posts over the last several days:

  • Leaders should walk the customer service talk.
  • Employees should look for opportunities to fill a customer need — don't just fix a problem, create an opportunity.
  • Employees shouldn't be "pre-programmed." Let your personality shine through! As long as it doesn't counteract the company brand.
  • When designing messages — in-store or out — keep it simple.
  • Relationship-based loyalty programs work better at creating real customer loyalty — but transaction-based programs can appear equally effective because they trap customers into loyalty.
  • Great in-store "experiences" generate incredible customer loyalty.

These are all valuable points to make. They're also pretty fuzzy. I'd like to get specific. How, exactly, do we do these things? What do they look like in the real world? At Starbucks, at Whole Foods, at the example companies Paul and John have pointed to?

A few thoughts to get us started:

How do leaders "walk the talk"? Do they go work the check-out line once a year, like Ron Sargent, CEO of Staples, or is that just so much PR? Do they walk the aisles in the customer call center to see how their employees are representing the company? I'd like to hear some real examples of how leaders walk their talk... and are effective both in the eyes of their employees and customers, not just photogenic, for doing it.

If employees aren't provided with canned-reponses and are expected to create customer opportunities, it follows that they must have a decent amount of autonomy, and be empowered to make decisions. How does management deal with this kind of loss of control over their employees' actions? Where is the balance — where do you draw the line between what kinds of decisions an employee is allowed to make in order serve the customer (cancelling an account? providing a refund?), and what level of company control over employees is simply a necessary evil to ensure that the company keeps on running?

Paul talked about "billboarding" when creating branding or marketing messages. What are a few classic examples of successful billboards, both at Starbucks and elsewhere? Not just slogans that were memorable, but messages that actually drove business by making the customer feel more attached to the company?

When selecting a loyalty program, is it better to create a relationship-based program because it creates greater value for the customer? Or to create a transaction-based program because it delivers more immediate results for the company? How much do companies focus on customer opinions when making this choice?

And lastly, John talked about great customer experiences at stores like Ikea. What exactly makes a great experience? Personally, I get lost and disoriented whenever I go to Ikea because it's set up like a giant maze... but I always go back because their stuff is cheap and some of it even looks cool. So what does a great customer experience look and feel like? Who does it well, and what, specifically, contributes to their success?

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  • Cecil Ledesma

    In the name of great customer service, my company finds itself in a dilemna between carrying out hardware (PC, Fax, Printers, etc.) installations using our own employees (expensive) versus contracting the work out (less expensive). You lose the control when the work you do is contracted out because installers don't own the experience they are merely a paid body. We are a 42 man company. Is it feasible to fly a person to do nationwide installations? Perhaps in the name of great customer service?

  • Maarten van Leeuwen

    How about this one...

    Forget what you have done in the past and start all over again.

    And ask yourself the question if I was to buy my own product, what kind of service would I expect? If I have a problem/question how do I want people to help me? After establishing your own perfect experience, go and look for the people who know customers. Your people in the line of fire. The people who can hear/see/feel the reaction towards your company! These people are of great value to you.

    David Wachtendonk said: "My Question: Can you teach somebody to be service-minded? Or is it just something that some people have, and some people don't"
    I say, people who apply for customer service positions are all ready customer focused. Cause many people will answer to you, when asked the question why they are applying to a position as a customer service rep, probably something like: "I would like to help other people" Or "I like to work with people." So there you have it. All you need to have now is a good recruiter who will set you up with the right people. How come that some many employees turn out to be your worst nightmare?
    When a CSR starts to work for you he or she has a certain level of expection towards serving the customer and towards your company. It is hard for your employee to deal with all your customer's problems and questions, especially if the CSR finds out that the company that represented itself as being a well organised and as having a good mission statement, turns out to a soap bubble that is out to burst. If managers do a poor your listening to the problems a CSR has while serving the customer, the company has a major problem.

    I would like to continue, however I need to get some sleep. Cause I have to work tomorrow, serving my customer, cause someone in the company thinks that our customer wishes to have his/her questions answered on a sunday. That's why that person is paying me 200% to work on a Sunday. And all that I have to do is listen to our customer. However it ain't our customer that is calling in on Sunday... I do not know what our customer does on Sunday, cause the customer ain't calling. Who is calling? Ah well, people who are bored and who have no lives or maybe it's our competitor who finds that our service level is too high...
    But I am not complaining, cause there is easy money to be made in Customer Service. I just wish that my managers were more inspiring!

    Maarten van Leeuwen
    The Netherlands

    - Always a pleasure to please -

  • Carl Fransman

    Creating a great customer experience starts by creating a great employee experience!
    Finding the right motivation for your staff is the hardest part of pointing all the noses in the same direction: the customer's...
    This is especially true for tech companies, especially those with many different technologies on offering. Avoiding the internal competition between technology departments affecting the customer experience is one of the hardest management tasks within tech companies.
    Therefore, top management should include some form of motivational strategy in the company's overall strategic plan. This is rarely the case. Who is to blame differs from company to company but usually this involves some sort of 'over-presence' of 'tecchies' at management level and a lack of business knowledge; the cure? Maybe simply to send more tecchies to executive education, part-time MBA's and the lot.

  • Sonny Lykos

    I think Bob Flores hit it on the head when he said: "Great customer service is the result of developing an organization and all of its operations such that its primary focus is serving the customer when, where and how they want to be served."

    I've been a remodeler in three different states. I one we are the largest in three counties. I all three we are above co command double to triple our industry average net profits.

    Regarding customer service, customer relationships, customer centric, CRM, or whatever you want to call it, including loyalty", at 61, I still call it making customers into friends, just as I did 40 years ago as a retail sales manager. As such, when interviewing candidates for employment, their trade skills were not my #1 concern. Their people skills were. I can teach trade skills. I cannot teach a naturally cold, robotic, or uninterested person to be warm. Nor did I ever care to become a novice psychologist. I hired character and personality, and the key is personality.

    We did not build remodels or fix repairs or perform construction trades. We made friends. We set standards, trained to our culture, then made our company flexible and literally wrapped our malleable company around the needs and desires of each customer, who incidentally, is as much of an individual as each of us are.

    And each of my staff, office of field, were told that if a problem developed and they couldn't get a hold of me or our superintendent, that person had the authority to spend up to $1000 to solve it. They were also told that under the same situation and a decision had to be made, to make it to the benefit of the customer, not the company. All advertising was stopped within 4 months in all three businesses. Referrals, or rather the reasons for them, thereafter generated our increased annual sales and margins.

    Selling, retaining and servicing customers in retail, or other service industries can't hold a candle to what we must do. And what we do is in virtually every remodeling project is to build a "prototype", one that's never been built before, and without the luxury of an ideal environment of a factory. Our "factory" is in the customer's home, where we must bring our material, ewuipment and manpower. And we are perpetually on "stage" - eight ours each day, and sometimes for months. Ditto for those subcontractors we we are responsible for and who also represent our name,our profits, and our future.

    Hire the right people. Pay them well, and get out of their way so they can then do what comes natural to them, and in line with the culture of the company.

    Without having the "personality" mandated to work with the public, a company is doomed to at the least, lower than expected margins.

    But Ahhh! When you do get the combination right, the sky's the limit, and regardless of the industry.

  • Steph Valastro

    I have to agree with Bob Flores when he stated; "Creating a great customer experience is not something that that one does directly, rather I believe it is the byproduct of a larger plan. And that plan is the deliberate and strategic development of a customer-centric organization and its supporting operations."

    Great customer service is a deliberate product of the organizational culture. Yes, to a degree, it can be trained into employees, and absolutely yes it has to be modeled by the organizations' leadership.

    Nevertheless, by and large, great customer service is a product of the organizational culture. And yes, it means "empowering employees" to do whatever it takes "within guidelines" to make the customer say "wow". At the last several places I worked there was a $$ guideline, dependant on the location and the product line. A good clue that I have found is to look at whether the employees are valued by the company, or if they are just a paid body. Companies that are sincere about providing legendary customer service, realize that their most valuable asset in that area is their employees.

    It is also allowing the employee to take the initiative. Asking the customer; "Did you find what you need, is there anything I can help you with, or even a sincere "thanks for shopping here". Customers can tell when the responses are canned, or automatic, and when they are genuine.

    Managers or leaders also need to be trained to "listen" and "notice" when their employees are providing "legendary" customer service. They too need to be "empowered" to recognize and/or reward employees when they notice them modeling the behavior. Managers also need to realize that a verbal "thanks, you handled that great" goes a real long way with employees. Far too many companies want excellent customer service, but then second-guess or constantly scrutinize the employees actions and decisions.

    Well, just my two cents.

  • Tom Asacker

    I believe the confusion lies once again with our metaphors. What does the word "service" bring to mind? Help . . . accomodate . . . repair, etc. Reactionary words. Today's supersaturated marketplace requires customer stimulation! Discover how to touch the feelings of one's audience and improve their life. As the bumber sticker so wisely advises: Comfort the disturbed (take the running shoes back without asking for a receipt). And disturb the comfortable (When you see a couple walk out of a restaurant/store/etc and they can't stop talking about how good/odd/different/etc their experience was . . . great point David).

    Tom Asacker, Author, Sandbox Wisdom, Revolutionize Your Brand with the Genius of Childhood

    Go to to have more conventional wisdom dispelled. ;-)

  • Bob Flores

    Creating a great customer experience is not something that that one does directly, rather I believe it is the byproduct of a larger plan. And that plan is the deliberate and strategic development of a customer-centric organization and its supporting operations.
    I've written about this at great length both here, on the Fast Company boards, and in my book, but I think it bears repeating. "Great customer service is the result of developing an organization and all of its operations such that its primary focus is serving the customer when, where and how they want to be served."
    By taking this approach, one reverses the mindset that the mission of a company is to "produce a product or service", but instead the mission becomes "to serve the customer".
    As intuitive as this sounds, it is surprising how many companies focus on "producing a product". One can have the greatest product or service in the world, but if it does not meet the needs and desires of the targetted customer base, then failure is assured.

    The WL Gore & Associates company is a PERFECT example of a corporation that has designed every aspect of its operations to meet the needs of its customers around a core product. Essentially, they sell a variant of Teflon in many different applications (Gore-Tex clothing is its most famous). But their success in each and every market space that they compete in, is a result of deliberately designing operational support to not only meet the needs of their customers but to continually surpass them.
    This goes for everthing from Teflon used in dental floss and outerwear to surgical equipment and high-tech industrial applications.
    WL Gore & Associates uses the principles of organizational development to ensure that every aspect of their operations is focussed on deliverying exactly what the customer needs, when they need it, and how they want to recieve it. Furthermore, they have applied advanced concepts of organizational structure and operational effectiveness to ensure that there is no wasted effort in serving their customers. The result is a customer loyalty that is off the charts, AS WELL AS, some of the most cost-effective and efficient operations in ANY industry.
    In direct contrast to this is the Motorola corporation. They have become so caught up in the concepts of Six Sigma production lines that by-and-large, they completely missed the boat on all of the latest developments in the Cell Phone industry. They surely have the tightest production lines in the business, but instead of focussing their efforts on producing a product that consumers want to buy, they have focussed on the WAY in which their product is produced. The result is that their competition have been early developers of such customer-focused features as low-cost camera-phones and instant messaging, with Motorola only now catching up with the trend.
    Great customer service can be achieved. But what it really comes down to is building it from the "inside out", and as a product of focussing the organization on serving the customer rather than simply trying to "sell them" on something that they may or may not want.
    We've taught our clients how to do this for years with great success, so I know it is possible. But it requires commitment and the willingness to change the way in which corporations think about their customers.

    Bob Flores
    COO-BTT Solutions Inc.
    Author: "My Budget is Gone, My Consultant is Gone, What the HELL Happened?!?!"

    For more information on how to ensure that your organization is focussed on "serving your customer" rather than "selling your product" go to or call our Denver Office at 303-859-7186

  • John Moore

    The beauty of the IKEA customer experience is that it doesn't end in the store. That is just the beginning of the customer experience.

    Another element to this experience is the at-home experience.

    Unpacking the boxes, reading the directions, surveying the raw materials, using the dinky allen wrench, sipping on a tasty adult beverage, listening to tasty tunes and if you are fortunate to be doing all these things with a significant other... then the IKEA experience is that much richer.

    (Still doesn't make up for the giant maze that also drives me batty.)

  • Rob

    I bought a pair of running shoes at Sports Authority, and after 6 weeks they began squeaking so I called to complain. The manager told me to bring them back, even though I had no receipt and had worn them for 6 weeks. I was so impressed, I buy all my running shoes there. I know that if I am unsatisfied, I can always return them.

  • David Wachtendonk

    A service experience looks like this:

    When you see a couple walk out of a restaurant/store/etc and they can't stop talking about how good/odd/different/etc their experience was.

    There is too much competition to allow your business to blend in with everybody else. By filling your employee's minds with trained responses you limit there ability to interact. It almost feels like you are talking to a robot.

    I studied service management for four years, and by definition good service can be explained with this phrase: "Did you make your guest say WOW". Did you underpromise and over deliver? Did you have integrity? Were you human?

    My Question: Can you teach somebody to be service-minded? Or is it just something that some people have, and some people don't