Putting the “Customer” in Customer Experience Efforts

We’ve reached the point where most business leaders understand that their organization’s ability to effectively acquire, retain, and improve the profitability of customers is a direct result of the nature and quality of the experience those customers have.

There is, however, a fundamental problem with both the literature and management practice surrounding customer experience.  The issue is that most business leaders and management gurus focus on how companies “deliver” experiences rather than how people actually HAVE experiences. Without understanding how customers HAVE experiences, companies often end up wasting lots of time and money on improvements that don’t generate a real return because they don’t fit with and influence how customers think, feel, and act.

If you do a scan on customer experience literature, you’ll find that virtually all of the definitions start something like this:  “A customer experience results from a set of interactions between an organization and a customer… ”   In addition, most of the discussion refers to an experience as if it is a characteristic of a company.  For example, people discuss the “Disney experience” or the “Starbucks experience” or the “BestBuy experience.”   All of this represents a highly company-centric perspective.

This company-centric perspective is deeply misguided.  It often encourages business leaders to make expensive improvements that are, at best, perceived by customers as “better sameness.”  At worst, these expensive improvements go unnoticed by customers who are too busy dealing with their own priorities and their own lives to pay attention to the fine details of their interactions with the business.

Over the past 25 years, we’ve worked with and studied businesses that have effectively innovated and differentiated the experience their customers have… and, as a result, have measurably improved the acquisition, retention, and profitability of those customers.   Based on this work, there are a couple of counterintuitive things we’ve learned:

  • Companies don’t have customer experiences; only customers do. The customers’ experience takes place in one place and one place only; in the mind of the customer. That experience consists of how a customer thinks and feels across the entire behavioral path they follow in pursuit of one or more goals that important to them. Talking about a company’s “customer experience” represents a very large step in the wrong direction. It’s a company-centric way of trying to be customer-centric. (See: Whose Experience is it Anyway?)
  • Casting customers in the role of “customer” can be limiting. This is a subtle distinction with profound implications. When you consider a person or organization to be a “customer,” it’s very easy to have your focus be on what you do to serve that customer. In the course of doing that, you may not look beyond that customer role to gain a much deeper and broader perspective on who they are, what’s important to them, what they’re trying to accomplish beyond the scope of your business. The fact that they’re a customer of your business doesn’t constrain the end-to-end experience THEY’RE having.
  • Customers’ experiences don’t just happen at your touch points. In fact, we’ve seen that the most important elements of the experience don’t happen at your touch-points at all. They happen at the non-touch-points. We’ve observed that touch-point oriented approaches end up leading to incremental improvements in the service quality that either seem like “better sameness” or, worse, go unnoticed. This is one of the reasons why it’s exceptionally easy to make uneconomic improvements in the experience. Alternatively, we’ve seen that companies that can develop a deep and comprehensive understanding of what customers experience at the non-touch-points generally uncover competitively relevant ways to differentiate the experience in a way that gets the customers’ attention. (See:  The Customers’ Experience Does Not Happen At Your Touchpoints!)
  • You can’t fundamentally shift the experience by tweaking surface level cues. The experience customers have with any business is a product of complex and deeply entrenched culture, legacy effects, and unwritten rules that drive the real behavior of the organization. For example, I’m writing this on-board a Delta flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles. Delta’s been promoting the new “Delta Experience” which includes cosmetic updates to their website, changes in their pricing policies, a new highly confusing boarding process, more contemporary music during boarding, along with a couple of “signature cocktails,” and a few other peripheral cues. Do you think these surface-level improvements have had ANY deep positive effect on the overall experience customers are having? Focusing on surface-level cues is a little like hacking at the leaves rather than striking at the root of the issue. In reality, most organizations are strongly predisposed towards the experience their customers are currently having. Unless you get to the root of how deeply entrenched organizational behavior influences the customer experience, you couldn’t possibly know enough about what to do to intervene and positively shift the experience. While those cues are an important, they are insufficient. On their own they are the proverbial “lipstick on a pig.”
  • How customers feel about your business is a side effect of how their experience with your business makes them feel about themselves. If your business makes customers feel great about themselves they’ll, in turn, feel great about your business. Understandably, most business leaders want to influence and measure how customers feel about their business. This strikes me as similar to a line you might overhear on a date… “but enough about me… what do you think about me?” Very often a company can consider their interactions with a customer successful if that customer’s orders were taken, problems resolved, and questions answered. In fact, many customer satisfaction surveys simply ask customers to give the company a report card on how well they feel the company did all those things. However, in many ways companies leave the customer feeling disrespected, devalued, stupid, or frustrated. This is one of the reasons why the concept of hospitality in business is so powerful (see: No Matter What Business You’re In… You’re in the Hospitality Business).
  • The most common customer experience approaches don’t consider how customers actually HAVE experiences. If they did, they would recognize that the vast majority of the experiences people have are subconscious. In most cases, people experience the world using something that can be called “gist processing.” In other words, they get a general sense for what’s happening without having to pay attention to all the details. In most cases, this gist processing leads to the execution of “automatic behavioral scripts.” Alfred North Whitehead said it best, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” Our ability to navigate the majority of our experiences on automatic pilot frees us up to focus our relatively limited train of conscious thought on the small number of things that seem most important to us.

In general, the best strategy we’ve found includes the following components:

  1. Design for Gist Processing. At the base level, you need to understand the perceptional process and basic constructs customers apply to navigate most of the experience relying on gist processing and automatic behavioral scripts.   When a customer enters a bank branch, checks into a hotel, enrolls with a health insurance provider,  etc… they have a set of constructs they’ve learned from past experiences and that operate within a perceptual framework that enables gist processing.  Experiences designed based on this perceptual framework and set of experiential constructs become inherently easy to navigate.    We use process called Experiential Construct Elicitation to surface and understand the constructs that are applied by different customer personae.
  2. Deliver Signature Experience Elements. This is all about getting the customers’ attention using a small number of high contrast and differentiated “signature experience elements.”   These signature experience elements catch customers by surprise, are perceived as a difference in kind compared to what they expected, and contribute to the brand story we want the experience to tell.  If you listen to customers talk about the Starbucks experience, the Whole Foods experience, etc…, you’ll see that customers consistently refer to a small set of experience elements that stand out for them as being the defining elements of the experience.  While you can spend a lot of time getting lots of details correct in the experience, having a small set of signature elements are the kinds of things that really resonate with and influence customers.

So, in summary, the essential message is… you need to understand how customers’ HAVE experiences before you can possibly know what to do to influence their experience… and ultimately, their behavior.

A World Class Hospitality Experience: Four Seasons Aviara

Last month, I had the opportunity to do a keynote speech at a Maritz Customer Experience Conference.   One of the highlights of this event was a behind the scenes tour of the beautiful Four Seasons Aviara Resort.    I took copious notes and wanted to share a few of the salient elements that contribute to the world-class hospitality experience delivered by this resort.  Across the clients we’ve worked with, there has been an increasing recognition that No Matter What Business You’re In… You’re in the Hospitality Business; it doesn’t matter if its a hotel, restaurant, bank, auto dealer, healthcare provider, or an insurance company.

The central thread that ran through the entire tour was the high level of excitement and engagement of the associates in each area of the operation.  Each person we spoke with emphasized the Four Seasons management model:  Teach Lead Coach Counsel Consistently (TLCCC Model).

A strong employee experience focus is consistent across the Four Seasons brand.  Hiring is critical; based on the observation that an individual’s desire to serve is innate; there to be discovered not taught by the organization.  As Four Seasons founder Isadore Sharpe has emphasized, “We hire for attitude.  We want people who like other people and are, therefore, more motivated to serve them.  Competence we can teach.  Attitude is ingrained.”  For more information see the following publications:

(Both of these documents are available through the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration:  Center for Hospitality Research)

Every aspect of the facilities, services, and personnel are carefully designed and orchestrated in a way that is consistent with their mission:

Four Seasons is dedicated to perfecting the travel experience through continuous innovation and the highest standards of hospitality. From elegant surroundings of the finest quality, to caring, highly personalised 24-hour service, Four Seasons embodies a true home away from home for those who know and appreciate the best. The deeply instilled Four Seasons culture is personified in its employees – people who share a single focus and are inspired to offer great service.”

Here are a few of the highlights of the tour:            

Housekeeping.  The Four Seasons has highly detailed housekeeping standards that dictate the exact condition and location of every item in the room.  For example, the two desk chairs are always pulled out from the desk at a 45 degree angle to make it easier for a guest to sit down.  There are always four magazines carefully arranged on a magazine rack, placed in the same sequence, staggered with a one inch margin between magazines.  The body wash, shampoo, and conditioner are always placed in the exact same location in the shower. 

Each new housekeeping attendant is given 2 weeks of training.  In addition to learning the housekeeping standards, attendants are expected to be able to answer questions and handle a wide range of guest requests.  Housekeeping attendants are assigned 12 rooms per person with the assumption that caring for each room will take 45 minutes per day.  Attendants are expected to know each of their guests’ names. 

With the exception of the evening turndown service, there are no carts in the hallway to obstruct guests’ passage.  In order to make this possible, the Four Seasons specially designed roller bags for carrying supplies and a vacuum.  Attendants hand carry linens back and forth to the linen closets.

Guests traveling with small children are provided with toys, as well as, milk and cookies at bedtime.  The housekeeping staff places letter sponges with the letters of each child’s name in the bathtub before the guest checks in.  In addition, housekeeping provides child-sized bathrobes, cribs, step stools in the bathrooms, and child proofing.

The Four Seasons allows guests to stay with small pets.  If a guest is traveling with a pet, the hotel provides dog beds and dishes.  The carpets are cleaned after any guest has stayed with a pet.

The Perfect Room Program.  Although housekeeping evaluates the condition of each room on a daily basis, every room is taken out of service and refreshed every six months.  This process takes 1-2 days per room and is based on an 82 point checklist involving every aspect of the rooms décor, furniture, and equipment.  If there is ever a “Guest Activated Problem” (a.k.a., GAP), the standard for responding is no more than 15 minutes.

Concierge.  The concierge desk is a focal point for guest requests from simple restaurant reservations to more complex guest requests.  For example, one guest indicated they were bored and wanted something exciting to do for the day; the concierge arranged a helicopter day trip to the Napa Valley.  Each person on the Four Seasons concierge staff is either a member of or working towards membership in Les Clefs d’Or (pronounced lay clay door; meaning “keys of gold” in French), the international association of professional concierges.

It’s the bellman’s responsibility to learn about the guests preferences when greeting the guest either in the lobby or in their room.   Four Seasons bellmen consider themselves detectives; they have to watch for subtle clues.  Bellmen are given a lot of latitude to correct problems as they occur rather than having to get approval from management.  For example, one couple checked in to the hotel to decompress for the weekend and were given a room overlooking the pool.  As the bellman was escorting the couple into the room, he noticed the wife’s very slight reaction; she’s wasn’t excited about being above the pool.  The bellman immediately looked into the availability of another room.  The only available room was the Presidential Suite.  The bellman arranged to have the couple moved to this suite for the same rate as their regular room.  When the couple checked out, the husband said the following about the bellman, “I’ve never met someone who loves their job as much as he does!”

Facilities.  Everything about the lobby and the grounds are designed to signal “relaxation.”  This includes the muted color scheme, lobby layout, and beautiful fresh floral arrangements.  Employees with a passion for landscaping pay acute attention to detail in caring for the grounds.  Daily cleaning, trimming, and painting are done during times of the night and day with minimal customer traffic.  In addition, they make very limited use of power equipment in order to reduce noise.  The facilities and golf course staff at this property has surprisingly low turnover; they’ve only hired 5 new people over the past 4 years.

Overall, it was an impressive tour; enlightening to see the kind of effort that goes on behind the scenes in order to deliver a superior hospitality experience.  The challenge for leaders across industries is to figure out how to deliver compelling and authentic hospitality in your business.  Ultimately, it’s knowing how you want the customer to feel about themselves… not how you want the customer to feel about your business that will guide your way.