Forget Customer Service — Focus on Customer Experience

Posted on April 6, 2015

Customer service. Two words that have been at the center of corporate improvement programs and countless awards ranging from JD Power to NCSA.

Each year, thousands of well-meaning companies compete for bragging rights of being #1 in customer support in their industry.  But just what does this mean?  If customer service is what happens when things go badly, are these companies competing for the right metric?

I think Maytag got it right years ago in their advertising that the best customer support is support you never use.  I mean, if you bought flood insurance for your home — do you really want to experience flooding to test the quality of your insurance policy?

I believe that brands focusing on customer service are missing the mark as it is only one dimension of the customer experience. Customer experience goes beyond purchase and ownership — it includes all phases of a customer’s interaction with a brand.

Not Enough Customer Service: UGG Australia

Just about anyone reading this post should be familiar with the brand UGG of Australia.  If you are married, chances are your wife begged you four years ago for a pair of UGG’s Bailey model boots with the Shearling fur lining.  The UGG craze took America by storm and with boots ranging up to $250/pair, the company is making lots of money.  From Zappo’s to Nordstrom, there are UGG shoes in all shapes, styles, and colors available for ease of purchase.

I decided to take the plunge and purchase a pair of their waterproof snow/mud (work) boots for winter use via an overstock website.  The boots were missing their laces, but were otherwise new and that meant saving over $100 off the retail price.  The boots arrived in early January as the cold weather and rain hit.  I visited UGG’s website for replacement parts and submitted a request for a pair of laces:

Upon submission of the web form, I received no instructions as to what to expect next.  A month passed and no response from UGG, so I emailed them and was told that my laces order was being processed.  Two weeks later — nothing. So this time, I tried their online chat for more immediate answers.  In the banner of this post, you will see the screen shot of what I saw when I clicked to initiate the chat session — a 72 minute wait.  Who in their right mind waits over an hour for live chat?

After working at my desk for nearly 90 minutes, a chat operator finally answered and advised my laces were coming from California (not Australia, thankfully) — but I would need to wait another two weeks.   That was early March 2015 and as of this blog post, I’ve received no laces nor any communication from UGG — despite my boots being one of their $250 premium products.  So, I went to a local shoe store and purchased a nice pair of laces for under three bucks.

It seems that UGG’s focus is on marketing, sales and new shoe production — not end-to-end customer experience.

Too Much Customer Service: Rackspace

I’ll contrast the UGG illustration with an example of a company obsessed with customer service, but perhaps to a fault.  Back in 2010, I had a conversation with Lew Moorman, President of Rackspace, as part of an executive job interview.  He asked me what I thought of Rackspace’s (then) brand positioning of “Fanatical Support.”  I replied “…customer service is what happens when things go badly” and “….for a hosting company, perhaps the best service is when nobody ever has to call customer support” (e.g. Maytag repairman).

I went on to explain that while customer support may have been a point of differentiation in the early stages of the hosting industry, the industry had matured by 2010.  This industry maturation resulted in the gap between customer service leaders and laggards closing such that buyers were unable to substantially discern the difference in service levels — thus, they were not willing to pay a premium for it.  What’s more, to the extent the computer servers were properly configured after the sale and there were no data center outages, it is quite possible customers could go a year or more without ever needing customer service.

I offered an alternative framework for Lew to consider: customer experience is the battlefield that infrastructure companies (wireless, hosting, VoIP, etc.) should strive to win.  Specifically, own the idea of giving customers an elastic platform for growth where customers can move in and out of various products/services while maintaining a seamless, consistent customer experience.

I outlined 5 chronological areas for focus: (Lew was red-face by now and I had torpedoed my chances of getting the job)

(1) Pre-sales (discovery, solution, quote, contract): ask the right questions, listen intently to understand the business problems that buyer is trying to solve, and set proper expectations as to the solution fit and on-boarding process.  The goal is to ensure that the expectations set during the selling phase can be delivered by the rest of the organization once the contract is signed.

(2) Customer On-boarding (timeline, provisioning, migration, launch): clearly communicate the timeline, tasks, owners, and impact/interruption to operations associated with transitioning the new customer to your platform.  The goal is to ensure that the new customer has a clear understanding of the transition plan and these first interactions inspire customer confidence/trust in your brand.  Everything that happens should align with what their sales rep said.

(3) Customer Management (support, billing, up-sell, cross-sell): ensuring timely and accurate dissemination of information to customers (invoices, platform upgrades/updates, FAQs, etc.)  It is important that the customer continues to build confidence/trust in your brand’s ability to service their account in a timely and accurate manner.  No unexpected surprises, outages, billing errors, etc. — and if such an issue does occur, your brand should find it first and communicate a remediation plan to the customer (never allow them to find the problem first and bring it to your attention).  When suggesting additional products or services for sale, always tie the recommendations back to how they can help the customer make money, reduce costs, reduce risk, or improve the customer experience they deliver to their customers.

(4) Customer Education (best practices, peer success stories, trends/insights): there’s an old saying “..the best way to predict the future is to create it.” Thought leadership is essential in continuing to build confidence/trust — and thus, enhance the customer experience.  Illustrate how peers in their industry are using your products/services to deliver exceptional customer experiences or gain a competitive advantage.  The ratio of thought leadership and best practices information compared to sales offers should be at least 5:1 to ensure customer trust.

(5) Customer Off-boarding (migration, communications, follow-up): when customers decide to leave your brand for a competitor, it is a golden opportunity to “take the high road” and treat them right.  Instead of doing the minimum to transition their account, go out of your way to ensure an elegant transition.  Why?  Because the “bigger, better deal across town” the led them to leave your brand might just turn out to be hogwash and they may be open to returning within 30-90 days – depending upon how you treated them.  Never burn a bridge, and your former customers will remain open to receive your ongoing communications and open to reconsidering returning.

While Rackspace’s obsession with customer support (service) was admirable, their meteoric growth was causing them to change customer account managers and other key personnel to the point of bewildering customers.  So perhaps they could have benefited migrating their narrow field of vision to a more holistic approach to customer experience.

As you reflect upon your own products or services, map your entire customer experience across these 5 criteria (and feel free to add more granularity).  If needed, spend a few dollars to have a third party “mystery shop” your company via direct and indirect channels and even conduct a purchase.  In this age of empowered buyers, one way to avoid competing on price is to win on the dimension of customer experience.


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