I know, I know, I wrote about customer service last month. But I recently heard such a fantastic story about creating positive customer experiences that I was inspired to write this article—so read on!
The story comes from a health care industry consultant who has a fitness club as a client. The club’s owner was committed to be the first in her area to specifically target women who were overweight and out of shape. She designed her club with all the appropriate exercise equipment and facilities, and hired gung-ho fitness trainers.
After a few short months in business, she realized to her surprise and disappointment that her customers were predominantly fit women who were there to buff their already better-than-average physiques. So, true to her original intent, she set out to learn why women who were less fit weren’t coming to her club and how she might be able to attract them as customers. Her next steps are ones every business should follow.
The club owner began by talking with women in her target market about why they didn’t belong to a health club, why they didn’t work out, and how they felt if they did visit a health club. Their answers prompted her to make changes in her business to accommodate her target customers’ sensitivities.
She replaced the regular towels in the locker room with larger ones. She put private stalls in the showers and in the clothes-changing area. She removed the mirrors in the aerobics studio and replaced her size-two fitness instructors with “plus-sized” instructors. She also started a unique coaching program to help overweight women overcome barriers to getting started on an exercise routine.
The result? Now the majority of her club members are not-so-fit women who are there to lose weight and get in shape. By tailoring the customer experience at her fitness club to be more favorable to their needs, she is able to attract and keep exactly the customers she set out to serve.
Now, it does not take an IQ of 140 to come up with the idea of asking existing or target-market customers what they want and need. Yet few companies actually do it. If your company is like most, you rely on the gut feelings of your management group, marketing people, or product development department. The harsh reality is that you may have some notion of the wants and needs of your target customers, but only those customers can tell you what you really need to know.
Beyond the Four Ps
For starters, you need to understand that today’s consumers are more frugal and therefore much more selective about the products and services they buy. They buy based on their own wants and needs, not based on what a company wants to sell them.
The classic “four Ps of marketing” (product, price, promotion, and place) aren’t always enough anymore. Sure, you’ve got to be competitive in those basic ways, but it takes more to get recession-struck consumers to part with their cash.
Many companies take a “marketing du jour” approach, dabbling in guerilla marketing, viral marketing, emotional marketing, and permission marketing, to name a few options. Each of these may have some value, but none addresses the fundamental problem: Consumers have become nearly immune to marketing messages that are sent to them through any channel.
What can still reach them is a positive experience of your brand. You need to create that experience within them when they interact with your company. And to do that, you need to know precisely what your target customers desire.
In short, you need to think like the cosmetologist who, when asked what it was like to apply makeup to women’s faces all day, replied, “I don’t apply makeup, I fulfill dreams.”
The Experience Economy
Creating positive customer experiences isn’t a new idea. More than 10 years ago, B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore took note of a progression of economic value that went from extracting commodities to making goods to delivering services. It was moving to its next plateau, they said, where staging experiences could be a source of value.
In their 1999 book The Experience Economy: Work is Theater and Every Business a Stage, Pine and Gilmore pointed to examples such as dining at a Rainforest Café, having your computer fixed by a Geek Squad agent, and shopping at Niketown to show that the concept of selling experiences was spreading beyond theaters and theme parks. Providing good customer service was no longer enough to rise above the competition, they said. Enhancing service to create a positive experience of the brand was required.
The points Pine and Gilmore made in their book remain not only valid but essential for understanding and appealing to recession-struck consumers. But if pre-recession consumers wanted an entertaining shopping experience, recession-struck consumers demand an experience that doesn’t simply entertain but provides real value.
To create it, you must understand your target market, just as the fitness club owner needed to listen to hers. That will require some homework of your own, but for starters, here’s what various consumer-trend pundits are saying about how consumers’ buying behavior has been significantly altered during the past few years. Consumers are:
• Spending less
• More careful about what they do buy
• Desiring self-sufficiency and control along with time-saving conveniences
• Gravitating to simplicity
• Quick to change loyalties
• Less worried about being green
• Not seeking extreme experiences
• Buying from companies they respect
Keeping these changed behaviors in mind, Pine and Gilmore’s guidance for designing a positive customer experience still applies.
1) Establish a theme that is concise and compelling so customers know what to expect. Whether you run a restaurant, tax advisory firm, or manufacturing plant, the interactions your customers have with your company will make you distinctive to them. Your theme doesn’t have to be as obvious as a Hard Rock Café’s rock music theme, but a theme of quality or speedy delivery or expertise in your industry should lay the foundation for everything else you do.
2) Provide interactions and design elements that reinforce the theme. The experience must include indelible impressions or “takeaways” that fulfill the theme. When customers enter your business, what is their first impression? Does your space include design elements that cue customers in to your theme? Do you welcome customers warmly? There’s a big difference between being greeted with “Next!” and hearing “Thank you for visiting our company. How may I be of assistance to you?” Likewise, “Your table is ready” sends an entirely different signal than the Rainforest Café’s standard greeting, “Your adventure is about to begin!”
3) Remove from the environment anything that distracts from or diminishes a positive experience. The biggest distraction is poor service. How many times have you gone to a restaurant, for example, where the ambiance was wonderful, the wine was top drawer, and the food was amazing, but the server was rude or inattentive? All of the positive elements of the experience were wiped out by the bad attitude of the server. Remember, it’s those kinds of cues and impressions that create the experience in the customer’s mind.
4) Engage all the senses in the customer experience. The more senses an experience engages, the more effective and memorable it can be. Midwest Airlines is known for the smell of freshly baked cookies as you step onboard the plane. Juut Salonspa enhances the experience of being in the hair stylist’s chair with a brief shoulder and neck massage. Put all the senses to work for you, and your customers will remember it.
Creating positive customer experiences should have been a priority before the recession, but it’s even more important now. You can seize it today as an opportunity to refocus your company. And if you don’t, you’ll probably have an unwelcome opportunity tomorrow to restructure your company.