Broaden your view

Editor’s note: Stephen J. Gill is director of assessment and training, and Laurence N. Smith is chairman and CEO, at Service Advantage International, a Plymouth, Mich., research firm.

There’s an old joke about a man who was asked why he was staring at the ground under a streetlamp. “I’m looking for my house key,” he responded. When asked if that was where he dropped it, he said, “No, but this is where the light is.”

We get a similar sense from the way many companies evaluate their customer service. They collect the data that is easiest for them to collect, rather than the data that is most useful for improving the customer experience. Comment-card or call-center data or even customer surveys, while part of the picture, cannot describe the total customer experience, nor do they indicate what to do to increase customer satisfaction and loyalty. At best, these measures are an indication of the attitudes of some customers who had either very good experiences or very bad experiences. At worst, these measures are highly misleading and could result in a waste of valuable resources with no appreciable gains for the company.

Accurate and useful data about the customer experience can only come from multiple sources that address all aspects of the organization that influence customer attitudes and behavior. A customer’s attitudes about a restaurant experience are affected by more than just the waitperson. Similarly, a shopper’s view of a grocery store experience is affected by more than just the availability of products on the shelves.

A customer experience

Sally had only a short time for lunch. She pulled into the drive-through at a local fast-food restaurant. The line was long and moving very slowly. Sally reached the speakerphone after 10 minutes in the line. She had been looking forward to a hot, tasty meal, but with only 15 minutes left to eat her lunch and drive back to her office, she was getting anxious and annoyed. An employee came on the speakerphone and rattled off a short, unintelligible speech about new items they were promoting. He did not apologize for the long wait, nor did he explain how long it would take to have her order filled. Sally lost her appetite. She drove away without placing an order.

Sally isn’t going to stop at the restaurant counter to fill out a comment card and she isn’t going to phone the company’s call center to complain about the restaurant. But she will think twice about going back there again and she will complain to her co-workers about the service.

Measuring the customer service experience by only hearing from self-selected customers, as many companies do, is like the man looking for his key under the streetlight. When companies focus on the customer that is visible and easily accessible, and do not examine the whole system of factors that affect the customer experience, they end up with data of limited usefulness.

Even if the restaurant manager somehow was able to talk to Sally directly, it is unlikely that Sally could communicate what the company needs to know. Of course, she would be aware of her dissatisfaction with service at the restaurant but she would probably not know what specifically the company could do to increase her satisfaction and gain her loyalty in the future.

Customers are not always able to articulate their feelings about customer service. They are annoyed when products are not the quality they expect, when employees don’t treat them with respect, and when the company seems to be unconcerned about their needs. But customers are not always aware of the source of this annoyance. How many times have you left a store, restaurant, hotel or airplane, unhappy with the experience but not knowing exactly what caused you to feel that way?

Total customer experience model

If a company truly wants to increase its customer satisfaction and loyalty and achieve its bottom-line goals, it must attend to all of the factors that contribute to customers being satisfied and loyal. The total customer experience (TCE) model is a framework for examining these factors.

In the TCE model, there are four categories of factors that drive a company towards outstanding customer service: 1) desirable and available products and services; 2) competent and engaged employees; 3) an aligned customer service culture; and 4) efficient and effective business processes. Acting on each of these categories changes the behaviors, norms, values, beliefs and attitudes that affect customer satisfaction and loyalty in any organization. Together, these drivers form our model of the total customer experience.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the categories.

  • Product and service quality

Products and services are what a company offers that have value for a customer. They can be tangible goods or employee interactions that provide something the customer wants. Customers want products and services that fulfill the purpose for which they were designed, are reliable, are attractive, and are available and accessible, and at a fair price. A new car that is attractive, meets the need, and is affordable to a customer won’t create satisfaction and loyalty if it isn’t available for six months. Or a bank that offers a high-interest-rate CD won’t achieve customer satisfaction and loyalty if the minimum deposit is beyond the financial reach of that customer.

  • Employee competency and engagement

Employee competency is the knowledge and skills that employees must have to effectively deliver customer service. Competent employees understand customers’ needs, know the products and services offered, and can communicate effectively with customers. In short, competent employees are capable of creating a positive experience for customers. However, they won’t do this on a consistent basis unless they are also engaged fully in providing outstanding customer service.

Employee engagement is the motivation and desire to help the company achieve its strategic goals. Engaged employees feel connected to the organization. They are loyal, committed, satisfied and productive. They have a sense of responsibility to their work and their employer that goes beyond pay and benefits. Engaged employees are proud to be associated with the company. Not only do they want to do well, they want their work team and the organization as a whole to do well. Engaged employees frequently exhibit four characteristics: a sense of ownership in their work, a customer focus, knowledge of products and services, and a desire for job advancement. These employees care about customers and believe strongly that their purpose is to provide outstanding customer service.

  • Customer-service culture

Culture consists of the norms, values, assumptions, beliefs and expected behaviors of employees and the organization as a whole. What does the organization believe and value about customer service? How are these values manifested in hiring practices, in rewards and incentives, in cooperation among departments, and in how the organization is structured?

Organization structure reflects the culture. Values and beliefs influence how the company separates work functions and how it establishes roles and responsibilities and lines of communication. Are people in the marketing, sales, manufacturing and customer relations departments talking to each other, or is each department a silo of separation? Does the customer relations department know that the new CD players being delivered to stores have defective cords that will have to be replaced by the company?

Additionally, organization culture encompasses the incentive systems that motivate employees to work hard and pursue advancement opportunities within the company. Are employees recognized for fixing a problem for a customer? Are employees recognized for suggesting ways to improve products? Are employees who work best with customers the ones who are encouraged to seek advancement and are they being promoted?

  • Business processes

This driver is about getting products and services to customers in a timely manner and in a condition that meets or exceeds expectations. Customer satisfaction and loyalty are a result of efficient and effective processes. For the most part, these processes should be invisible to customers. Sally doesn’t care that the restaurant is short-staffed and employees are doing the best they can to fill orders quickly. She only cares that she will miss lunch because she doesn’t have time to wait. The organization should have work processes in place that complete orders as customers expect and, when this is not possible, there should be a process for communicating with customers about the problem.

Effective business processes are supported by the resources employees need to deliver outstanding customer service. From in-store machines, to computers, to telecommunication technology, to simply a comfortable and efficient work environment, employees must have the resources to do their job right.

Tools for measuring TCE

Knowing the drivers for creating an outstanding customer experience is the first step. The second step is to measure each of these characteristics and track these measures over time. Choose the best measurement tool for the job. In most cases you should use more than one tool. This will help you assess the customer experience from different perspectives.

1. Mystery shopping
Trained auditors, acting as typical customers, evaluate the products and services of the business location. They record the location’s performance on a predetermined set of indicators. These “customers,” unknown to employees, experience a business as if they are regular customers. Mystery shopping done with competitors allows an organization to compare and learn from other companies.

2. Focus groups
Small groups of customers, employees or vendors are invited to come together to discuss customer service. This is highly structured and moderated by someone experienced in small-group facilitation. Participants are asked a set of questions to assess their attitudes, beliefs and perceptions of the company and its products and services. The focus group method is a way to hear what participants are thinking and give them an opportunity to share their concerns and suggestions. The method usually produces stories and descriptions of the nature of the customer experience. While this can be very useful, the findings are not generalizable to all customers.

3. Intercept studies
Customers are interviewed on-site, immediately after making a purchase or immediately after using the company’s services. The experience is fresh in their minds. This method ensures that you hear from current customers and customers who are less self-selecting and biased than the typical respondents to surveys.

4. Customer satisfaction and loyalty survey
Customers are surveyed to assess their satisfaction with products and services and their loyalty to the company. They are asked to answer a list of questions that are mostly closed-ended, using rating scales. These surveys can include several open-ended questions, but they necessarily must be superficial. These surveys can be done through the mail, by telephone or on the Web.

5. Employee competency and engagement survey
Employees are surveyed to assess their ability to provide high-quality customer service and their sense of connection and commitment to doing so. This kind of survey can also be done through the mail, by telephone or on the Web. It can be done in a variety of settings: during a large meeting of employees, in teams, by departments, or one-on-one.

6. Customer-service culture survey
Employees are surveyed to assess their company’s commitment to customer service and how well what management says is aligned with what management does. Employees are also asked about the availability of incentives and other kinds of support for providing high-quality customer service.

7. Company records
Departments, stores, service centers and other units of the company have data that can be used to track selected process efficiency and effectiveness indicators. For example, maintenance records from each store might have data to track equipment reliability. This data is analyzed to understand how company operations impact customer experience.

A total picture

Attracting and keeping customers depends on knowing what it is that makes the customer’s experience a positive one. Using only one data collection method and choosing that method based on convenience will provide you with only a small piece of the total customer service picture. A complete picture includes measures of products and services, employee competency and engagement, organizational customer service culture, and business processes. These are the pieces that fit together to create a full understanding of the customer’s experience. Without this total approach, you might discover some of the symptoms, but not the causes. Don’t waste time under the streetlamp when you could be illuminating the road to outstanding customer service.