All things being equal, the company that delivers a better customer experience than its competitors wins in the short-term and in the long-term.
Is customer experience, as it is usually said, the single most important aspect in achieving success for companies across all industries?
Mike Wittenstein: I don't believe it is. I can't think of one methodology or way of thinking that, by itself, solves everyone's problems. Offering a great experience does require an organization to be an excellent operator first. It's hard to fix the experience if you don't have the basics correct. You can say that companies with great experiences are 'better' than other companies, but you can't say that customer experience is the best 'way' to get there. Many companies require other kinds of repair first.
What are the key features of successful customer experience management?
Mike Wittenstein: Most important is to understand your customers. I mean knowing (at least a few of) them personally to the point that you can see how your company fits into their way of managing their lives. How companies think about customers (wallet share, demographics, contribution margin, and other such measures) aren't as important as how the customers see the company (value, authenticity, trust, willingness to promote to friends, etc.). Making decisions about the cost of service delivery and customer experience should be equally balanced with the value they produce for customers (with 'value' being defined by the customers of course).
What are the features a company should consider in improving the customer experience with its brand?
Mike Wittenstein: It's my opinion that the customer experience is the brand. No matter how hard you try or how much you spend, your brand can't be any better than what your customers experience. Every day, brands have to earn their reputation with customers. It is they who determine what kind of brand we are, not the brand managers, company leaders, or employees.
How does a company's interaction with its customers and its capability to deliver on their wants and needs translate into customer loyalty?
Mike Wittenstein: We (as humans and customers) are creatures of habit. The more a company provides us with what we truly want and need, the less frequently it occurs to us to shop elsewhere for the same thing. If we (as companies and brands) are delivering the same products and services as our competitors, it follows that improving the customer experience will give our customers the reason to shop us and stay with us.
How deep is the gap between what a company offers and what a client expects in reality?
Mike Wittenstein: Of course, that depends on the company. Ideally, what is promised by the brand is what operations delivers. Customers are hungry for authenticity. Brands and companies that deliver it are held in higher esteem, earn more word-of-mouth, and are considered more trustworthy by customers and prospects. There is one exception. When an important part of your experience is the delivery of the emotion of surprise, like an exciting ride at a theme park, you don't want to tell the riders everything that will happen to them. Instead, you focus on what they can expect to feel.
What are the most common mistakes that companies make in building customer experience?
Mike Wittenstein: The most common mistake I see is designing the experience to suit the business and not the customer. For example, one theatre I heard of put monitors along the line to purchase tickets so that the wait seemed shorter. It might have been better to add a second ticket window to reduce the line. Designing with customers in mind is always the right thing to do. It's up to the leadership to determine which design approaches will yield the best combination of experience and financial return.
Employees are often the most critical element of any customer experience effort. How can companies engage employees at every level across the organization to build a superior customer experience?
Mike Wittenstein: This is a great question because it touches on an area of experience design that is often overlooked. There are three things to win continuing engagement among employees. First, include the employees in the customer experience design process. Your front-line employees already know what most of the customer-facing problems and opportunities are because they deal with customers every day. Some of them may also be able to tell you how the work (processes, operations, rules, rewards, etc.) needs to change in order for them to be able to serve customers well. Second, create a picture of what the ideal customer experience looks like so that everyone can see it, understand it, then copy it. Third, and most importantly, give every employee the experience of being a customer—just the way you (and your customers) want it to be. There's no better way to emotionally connect employees with customers than to let them walk in the customers' shoes!
There are organizations whose customers have few positive things to say about their brand. How does a company turn around such a situation?
Mike Wittenstein: The most important thing to do, in my opinion, is to declare that customer input (both rational and emotional) is valid evidence for decisions made at the executive level. Many organizations' management teams simply discard what they can't prove. Another tactic you can use is to learn more about your customers. This means spending time with them, watching them, inviting them to company meetings, getting to know their preferences, their perceptions of your company and, most importantly, their reasons for purchasing your products and/or services. These two ideas will positively impact how decision-makers select product/service changes that affect customers.
Can you give us an example of best practice?
Mike Wittenstein: One of the simple and least expensive best practices is to start using brand monitoring social media tools. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of them on the market now. They provide a real-time continuous feed about what customers are saying about your brand and their experience with the company. The best companies have invested in handling the issues that arise by putting people, processes, and tools in place—and granting the authority to act in the best interests of the customer (within reason of course).
Who are the trend setters in terms of superior customer experience?
Mike Wittenstein: You may think it's Apple or Zippos or one of the luxury travel companies. While these companies have earned their reputations on providing a consistently better service/product experience, they are not, in my opinion, trendsetters. The true innovators in customer experience are people like you and me who are tired of bad service and are doing the difficult and rewarding work of setting their organizations to operate differently—and better. They are people who understand their customers, think like they do, and get their companies to operate the way the customers want them to. The elegance of experience design is simply providing more value for customers while maintaining adequate profitability for the business.
What should a company do in order to turn customer's complaints and dissatisfactions into innovations that help them achieve more and become worth more?
Mike Wittenstein: The answer is easy. 1) Start listening. When a customer complains, think of it as a gift, not as an annoyance. 2) Respond immediately to that customer and do your best to resolve the problem at hand. If you can't do anything, at least give an honest answer. 3) Look for trends in the complaints and comments remembering to use all of the sources of information available to you (check-in, call center, point of sale, sales calls or showroom, on-line comments, surveys, mystery shopping, etc.). Organize what you find into groups based on what's most important to the customer (for example, saving time or 'great first impressions'). 4) Implement and communicate. Be as transparent as possible so that customer and employees can understand that you are serious about making improvements, see the progress, and feel open enough to share their thoughts on your efforts with you directly. Authentic communication creates a kind of bond with your customers and employees that converts into a willingness to work with you and to support you with ideas and, of course, one's business. 5) Remember that this is hard work and that it's worth doing!
How do good/bad customer experience impact the financial results of a company?
Mike Wittenstein: All things being equal, the company that delivers a better customer experience than its competitors wins in the short-term and in the long-term. Colin Shaw, Frederich Reichheld, and a number of academics have proven this point several different ways. Their work also details how to measure the financial impact of positive word-of-mouth from raving fans.
What impact has the financial crisis in this field?
Mike Wittenstein: When customer's budgets become smaller, what used to be routine purchases become considered purchases. People will spend more time making sure their wages are buying them as much as possible. Many customers decide to 'buy down', that is they substitute a less expensive provider of goods or services instead of doing completely without. The interesting phenomenon I've been watching is that the people who buy down bring their previous expectations with them. For example, if a young family decides to buy down from the italian restaurant with white tablecloths to a fast casual dining experience, they will still want attentive service and, maybe, a visit from the ‚maitre' or chef. The economic crisis provides operators with the opportunity for improving the quality of the experience as a way of keeping the new customers who are coming in their doors. Many adjustments to the customer experience can be implemented at low cost and, through referrals, bring in more new customers. The perfect recipe for hard times.
Are companies directing more effort in building good customer experience?
Mike Wittenstein: Yes. A recent Forrester survey informed me that 62% of executives believe that the best use of customer experience design work is to perform better against their competitors.
Mike Wittenstein is known across multiple industries as "the Authority on Customer Experience". Focused primarily on service companies, he has a long track record at designing and delivering service innovations that help brands become more appealing and more profitable.
Wittenstein has influenced key decisions at Air Canada, Apple, AT&T, Carlson/Wagonlit, CarMax, Delta Air Lines, Diversakore, Goodwill Games, Holiday Inns, IBM, iPay Technologies, Kinko's, McDonald's, Southern Company, Turner, US Forest Service, Val-Pak, and Wingate Inns.
A former e-visionary at IBM, he also founded Galileo, one of the first interactive agencies in US. He the CEO of Storyminers, a consultancy company founded in 2002, providing customer experience design.
Wittenstein is currently working on a book, Designed Experiences: A Practical Guide for Leaders, designed to those practitioners work through the details of the organizational transformation that customers prefer and businesses can deliver profitably.
The concept of 'customer experience' was first introduced by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore in a 1998 Harvard Business Review article. They elaborated on how successful businesses influence people through engaging, authentic experiences that render personal value.