Instead of looking for a one-size-fits-all solution, or even a set of solutions, organisations need to be flexible.
Look for the clues the customer is giving you. It is important to understand what is important now and adjust accordingly.
Many years ago, when my wife and I had just met and been on a few dates, something interesting happened. She noticed that I was always wearing the same shoes. I had a decent job, lived in a nice part of London and seemed to look after myself, so what was up with the shoes? Actually, I had three pairs. I had heard somewhere that leather lasts longer if you allow it to ‘breathe’ once in a while, so I wore two fairly similar pairs alternately. And I had a pair of trainers for the gym. Surely that was all I needed? As I soon found out, that’s clearly not the case. Different occasions call for different shoes.
While the sensible black lace-ups I had were great with formal suits, they would look completely out of tune in a design agency or a start-up. And as for going out, clearly my wardrobe needed work. Now, after 10 years of marriage and a fair number of shoe purchases, I have to admit that there are indeed lots of occasions that call for something different than just black work shoes or gym trainers. But that is just shoes. I can’t help but feel that many businesses handle customer experience the same way that I used to approach shoes. There is a tendency to find a process or algorithm that feels comfortable and use it for every occasion.
Basics versus delighters
We love silver bullets. There is an abundance of books and articles that describe how “if you do XYZ, you will have delighted customers”. But what if XYZ is only right for some customers and completely wrong for others? And even if nobody objects, what if those silver bullets are just covering the basics? Because customers tend to take basics for granted and will only notice them when they are wrong or missing (see Kano model for drivers of customer satisfaction).
A good example is effortlessness, which gets a lot of attention in the customer experience community. Yet in most cases, effortlessness in its own right is not enough reason for delight. People might be surprised when they don't need to queue at the post office, but it will hardly make them go raving about it to their friends. It just works, for a change. For once, they lack a reason to leave. A basic can only lead to delight if the status quo in that market is so poor that expectations have been lowered to the point where a basic no longer is a basic. It has become a performance need or perhaps even a delighter ("wow, the train is on time!"). Markets like that tend to be ripe for disruption and once somebody starts to make improvements, competitors will soon join in. While basics are essential (a must-have), they are hardly ever enough to delight in their own right.
Confusion around needs is not the only problem. There is also context. What is right for me at this moment may be wrong later. Take for example coffee. On the way to work I might want to grab a quick cup of coffee from a Starbucks or Nero to take into the office. As I tend to be in a rush, in most cases I will want to get this coffee as quickly and easily as possible. But one morning I may be in the same place with a colleague for a meeting and will want to sit down. I would even appreciate table service, which would be much slower but it would also allow me to order a second round without having to interrupt the meeting. Similarly, watching a romantic movie might be a great idea if I had a night in with my wife, but it would be a complete dud with a group of male friends and a few drinks.
Online this is even more blatant. Who thought it was a good idea to chase customers around the web with ads for a TV they already bought? When our daughter still wore diapers, web sites were regularly offering us the same nappies as we had bought before. Even a year later, when clearly a different size was required. And as for the buying process, sometimes I'm in a hurry and want to buy something quickly, yet in others I take my time - irrespective of the price point. I might want to find out more about the ingredients in certain food products, or get a better understanding of the impact of certain detergents on the environment. It all depends on my personal context at that particular point in time.
Experiences need to be customised
Joe Pine wrote an entire book on the topic (“Mass Customization”) as early as in 1992 and this article together with Jim Gilmore. This gives a very clear, structured approach to customisation of products and services. After almost 30 years, it is still highly relevant. On top of that, experience is about how you make people feel, which is as much about the process itself as about the outcome. In other words, for some customers it may be alright to spend time on asking lots of questions, but for others (or on another occasion) there may be less time and (yes, it does happen) they just want the same thing they bought last time.
This leaves the question: how do you know what is right?
In his excellent book “Clued In”, Lou Carbone describes how businesses send out signals (clues) all the time. This includes everything the customer perceives about the business. These clues in turn influence how the customer feels - i.e. their experience.
This idea can also be flipped on its head. Clues go both ways. Customers send out clues/signals all the time as well.
In the earlier example of a coffee bar, a typical approach to "creating a customer experience" would be to look at previous visits and derive the customer's preferences from that. However, that customer might be sending out signals that suggest that their visit is different from previous ones. For a start, instead of joining the queue in the coffee bar, they might walk to the seating area and try to find the colleague they are about to meet. A good barista would instantly spot this and adjust their approach. That is what makes for a great experience. Frontline staff base their actions on what the customer needs there and then, in that moment, not based on what the customer preferred the last time.
For online products or services this problem is slightly different. Managers tend to think that the Internet gives them a cornucopia of clues, when in reality they are just collecting random data. The result is usually unhelpful, if not downright frustrating. Irrelevant suggestions or unhelpful pop-ups just delay and confuse. Instead, offer clear and simple options. When using data, don't act on individual data points in isolation. Combine data, place them into context and look for patterns. If somebody bought a printer, don't offer another printer but suggest matching cartridges. Only offer the same product again if somebody has bought it repeatedly before.
So instead of looking for a one-size-fits-all solution, or even a set of solutions, just be flexible. Look for the clues the customer is giving you. It is important to understand what is important now and adjust accordingly.