The days of just providing products and services seem to be over now. The era of customer experience is here. Customers no longer just expect a great product but an exceptional journey throughout. Something that engages them emotionally. A story that they can remember fondly and narrate to themselves and to their friends. A product or service that has solved a problem for them and reduced their pain.
Think of how we would organise a kid’s birthday party. In mid 1900s, typically the mother collected the raw materials (flour, eggs, sugar, etc.) and baked it herself. Then came the time when parents bought the cake mixes from the supermarket. Then the consumer began to get spoilt for choice with various kinds of bakeries and cake-shops offering ready-made cakes. And these days, there are companies that offer theme parties with smash cakes and special photographers to provide a unique memorable experience for everyone! And in that process, families are ready to pay exorbitant amounts of money to get that experience.
In the last few decades, we have rapidly moved from a commodities-centered economy to a full experience economy. According to Gartner Research, 89 per cent of companies expect to compete mostly on the basis of customer experience by 2016 compared with 36 per cent four years ago. According to a report in Forbes magazine, poor customer experiences result in an estimated $83 billion loss by US enterprises each year because of defections and abandoned purchases.
Take the example of going for X-ray, CT scans, or MRI machines. Dough Dietz, an industrial designer, working with GE Healthcare saw that children were terrified with these. He put together a team to develop an innovative design-based experience for the kids that they called Adventure Series. The machines now looked like spaceships and castles. In fact, after the scanning, several kids asked their parents when they could be back for another visit. To do so, what was needed was empathy. That is to say, stepping into the users’ shoes to figure out exactly what they were looking for. That helped in personalizing. Anything — small or big —that solves a problem for the customer is hugely rewarding for the business too.
Companies nowadays are trying to connect with the customers’ emotions and all their five senses. If you have ever been around a LUSH Cosmetic store, you know that you can smell the store from quite a distance on the street. Customers can feel, touch, and try the products. There is always an employee who approaches you to give you a personalized tour of their shop. There are demonstrations of the products. Employees provide free samples with personally written messages for you. And after you are back home, you can view how the products are made through their Youtube series on How it’s made. These activities generate authenticity.
Not only that, companies are increasingly paying attention to the entire customer journey — before and after the product or service purchase — and look out for all the touchpoints to make these interactions memorable. It is no longer enough to have customer support staff that responds when the customers face difficulties. By then, chances are that you have lost that customer already. People start interacting with your product or service even before you know it. From hearing about it, searching for it on social media, doing first trials and evaluations, purchasing it, to its continued use.
This new emerging trend in our economy also means that we need professionals with different kinds of backgrounds ranging from design thinking, technology, architecture, psychology, journalism, and so on. It is no longer enough to have just business knowledge. The ability to be creative, to use emotions effectively, and to be able to tell great stories — these skills are going to be become hugely important. Above all, being open to new ideas and constant experimentation will be valuable. As Carl Jung said, “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect, but by the play instinct arising from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the object it loves.”
Apple, Airbnb, Uber — are some examples that have focused on solving problems for their customers and providing a one-stop integrated experience. Companies now need to start think of providing that WOW factor!
(Dr Kriti Jain is a faculty member at IE Business School, Spain and an EU Marie Curie Research Fellow)