Ever wondered how certain brands manage to create a distinct and consistent experience about them, no matter where, when or how you interact with them? Consider for example one of South Africa’s large high-end retailers as a case in point. From the quality of their products, high levels of service delivery, consistent store layout and design, stock levels, the conduct and interaction with their employees right through to their online presence – there is an absolute consistency in the customer experience, and in fact one that customers have come to expect as a trademark or ‘signature’ – whether they shop in Durban, Cape Town or Johannesburg, and whether instore or online. The quality of this customer experience is unique, particularly in a South African context. On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have retail brands that are poles apart in their offerings despite being part of the same chain, and there is absolutely nothing consistent in what you experience from one store to the next. For the most part, the experience can be described as random.
So, what goes into creating this highly differentiated and consistent customer experience? Is it investment in staff training, does it reflect a unique recruitment process? Is it the branding and packaging, the types of products or the approach to how customer service is delivered? Is it the selection of only certain suppliers, on an exclusive basis and advanced supply chains and logistics? Is it a commitment to a certain sustainability ethos that permeates throughout the supply chain and product offering? Is it in their marketing messaging or design? The short answer is yes to all these things, but it’s also more than that. It is what is referred to as Customer Experience (CX) DNA – an essence that is evident in every facet of the business.
When creating a unique customer experience in an ocean of ‘sameness’, it is crucial to understand and articulate exactly what it is that you want your customers to experience when they interact with your business. What do you want them to feel, think or even tell others once they have bought your products or used your service? Designing your CX DNA with intention and purpose, along every aspect and interaction in the customer journey, is how you fully differentiate yourself from your competitors.
Consumers are truly spoiled for choice, and most brands will find themselves competing on some aspect of a product’s price or features with competitors. The ONLY way to truly differentiate is through your customers’ experience of your brand and offering – done well, it is incredibly difficult to replicate by your competitors. It’s that intangible essence that leaves customers feeling impressed and with a sense of affinity, which makes your brand more trusted and desired than others, when your customer chooses your brand again and again, even when they are faced with credible alternatives.
The art and science of crafting your Customer Experience DNA
Defining your CX DNA or ‘essence’ is both art and science. It requires careful, purposeful consideration and design – think of it as the quintessential display of your belief and practice around your customers.
Interestingly very little literature refers to what ‘customer experience essence’ is – most references relate to a ‘brand essence’. The concept of brand essence originated in the world of marketing, and brands spend millions of dollars on market research and advertising agencies to craft their unique ‘brand essence’ – a short statement that expresses the core of what the brand represents and the image it seeks to project.
Customer experience essence is often used interchangeably with ‘brand essence’, but it’s important to understand the distinction between them. Brand essence defines the spirit of the brand and is often encapsulated into the tagline or slogan. Examples of big brands’ essence include:
Nike: “Innovation and Inspiration”
Apple: “Innovation, Difference and Simplicity”
Disney: Seeks to make the impossible, possible.
Brand essence therefore presents a definition of what it stands for – a consideration of the brand values and personality.
‘Customer Experience Essence’ defines a specific framework around the desired outcomes for customer engagement. It provides a set of ‘design principles’ that direct the company’s focus towards it’s ‘True North’ around its customers. It defines what customers should expect, the promises to customers that need to be delivered upon to ensure the desired experience – it essentially directs HOW customers are thought about and how they are served. It is used as a reference or framework for all employee behaviour in the context customer engagement.
What is Customer Experience Essence [DNA]?
DNA refers to the “fundamental and distinctive characteristics or qualities of someone or something, especially when regarded as unchangeable”. The Customer Experience DNA of a brand or company is the blueprint of the how customers are managed and engaged with throughout the organisation – it is the fundamental and distinctive characteristics and approach to customers.
How to develop your Customer Experience DNA
It’s all about weaving customer-centric thinking into all that you do. It’s not extra work, but rather the context for all work that you do within the business. Just like DNA, it’s about embedding the characteristics into the fabric of your company’s existence. Think of a parent where every decision is made with your child at the heart of what you do – from what you eat, the school you choose, the furniture you buy, the vacation you choose, the car you drive, the restaurant you go to. In the same way, Customer-centric DNA means your customers are the context for every decision that you make about and for your business.
There are some significant benefits to invest in crafting your Customer Experience Essence
- It defines the differentiated service delivery that sets you apart from competitors and is difficult to replicate.
- It unifies the approach to customer service across every facet of the business, from the front-end to the back-end. Everyone in the company understands the promises to customers, and buys into them.
- It directs customer service behaviour without having to describe what to do – employees are required to focus on achieving the desired customer experience.
- It becomes the yardstick for performance as it reflects on behaviour and customer experience.
- It is easy to build into your employee experience, including the recruitment and selection of talent.
- Onboarding new employees into the culture of the company, especially around how to interact and serve customers, is scalable.
Many employees may be aware of the company’s values – seen somewhere on posters or at induction training, yet few embrace those values in their everyday work life unless they are consistently driven. More often than not, new employees are not recruited for the fit to the company values, but rather for their skills or experience. It is common knowledge that building a differentiated corporate culture is not easy; it does not develop by chance, yet a culture will develop irrespective of whether you drive it or not. A culture is seen in the ‘way things are done’ and observed by newcomers, modelled after behaviour by their peers and leaders. There is always a culture, albeit not necessarily one the leadership believes or wants it to be. Human capital professionals will acknowledge how challenging it is to create or change culture. It is equally challenging to embed the collective approach and behaviour towards customers, using CX Essence or DNA, yet its power is massively significant! The aim should be to build this CX Essence in the very fibre [DNA] of the culture of serving customers.
How to define and craft Customer Experience Essence?
The process to articulate your brand or company’s CX essence can take many shapes, but it is recommended that cross-functional teams collaborate in the design process. It can be multi-layered, but the best results are achieved with smaller representative groups. The process normally starting with a few critical considerations:
- COMPANY’S PURPOSE: What is your company’s vision or purpose? Why does your company choose its products or services, as opposed to any other way? What is the greater reason for the company’s existence?
- CUSTOMERS’ AMBITION: What are your customers’ ambitions? What problems do they want to solve, what are their pains and challenges, and why do they need you to solve it?
- YOUR CUSTOMER AMBITION: What is your ambition around customers? What is it that you want to achieve for your customers and for them to take away from their experience with you?
- CUSTOMER PROMISES How do you wish the serve your customers? This talks to customer promises and the desired experience, encapsulating the way customers should feel and think when interacting with your company.
These elements form the framework for your Customer Experience Essence, providing the design principles and foundation of how to think and behave towards customers. The customer promises become the way to serve customers to achieve the desired experience AND serve as the acid test for behaviour and performance.
Nicolas Ziesler refers to the brand promises in a similar way to customer promises but cautions that a brand or company cannot be all things to everyone¹.
He suggests for example that your customer promises may be focused on SAVING your Customers:
- money (you’re a value or discount brand),
- hassle (you’re an ease-of-use brand), or
- time (you’re an on time, always ready brand).
- You may be looking to provide superlative exquisite experiences (you’re a Luxury Brand),
- Top-notch durability and reliability (you’re a quality brand).
Customer promises can also be defined in the way customers should feel, such as reassured, impressed, proud, safe and so on. Emotions and emotive words are powerful ways to define the desired experience. In its simplicity, the customer promise is the vehicle to create the collective approach to serving customers and building a customer-centric culture. Benefits include:
- It directs behaviour – A CX Essence provides every employee a clear context of what is expected. For example, if your company’s customer promises include ‘We will make it easy’, it requires every employee, at every touchpoint, to make it simple and clear for the customer, and to ask him or herself… ‘did I make it easy for the customer’? The CX Essence provides a powerful tool to onboard new employees on the way your company wishes everyone to interact with customers, and it defines your service culture.
- It serves to measure behaviour and performance – It also offers a way to measure the desired experience, for example by asking customers – ‘how easy was it for you to resolve your query, or how easy was it for you to find what you were looking for, apply for a service, buy our products or use our service?
- It can save you money – When employees are empowered to deliver service with the customer promises as the frame of reference, it can save money (less time required to fix problems or to micro-manage employees) and forms a cornerstone of the company culture. When confronted with customer challenges, employees will more likely ensure the right outcome when they know they will be supported by the company, even if it meant more effort by the employee, or making decisions at the edge of the norm. Empowering employees means that limiting rules, procedures and policies aimed at ONLY protecting the company are reviewed, and eased where possible, to allow employees to act in the best interest of achieving the desired experience for customers. When the employees embrace the customer promises, and own their role in the service delivery chain, the customer experience CAN be consistent and sustainable.
- Get leadership buy-in – Leadership must approve and sign off the CX Essence of your company and they must be comfortable with the articulated customer promises. The endorsement of the Customer Experience Essence, especially as reflected in the design principles, and representative of the company’s DNA around its customers, serves as the framework for customer-centricity. The customer promises should be used in the business performance metrics to ensure that customers always leave with the desired experience, or that gaps will be addressed, when required.
- Share the CX Essence with all employees – As with any successful venture in any company, the employees’ buy-in is essential to the success of introducing the CX Essence. Therefore, the CX Essence must be shared widely and continuously. Internal programmes should focus on ensuring that everyone knows what the customer promises are and how it will be measured. Training programmes should be developed around how to achieve the desired experience and platforms created to talk about ‘what stands in the way’ of delivering service for the desired experience.
- Keep customer promises top of mind – Knowing what to do, does not mean it’s done in the right way! In a classic case study shared world-wide about the culture of the Ritz-Carlton, the entire organisation focusses on one customer promise (Golden Rule) every day. They talk about their challenges, how they addressed it and how to prevent it from re-occurring, using real-life examples with customers. Every employee participates in the daily briefing session (at every hotel across the world) whether they clean, cook, carry bags or manage check in. This investment has aligned everyone employed by this group world-wide into 10 Golden Rules when it comes to customer experience.
- Appoint CX ambassadors – Identify, appoint and train CX ambassadors as watchdogs of employee behaviour towards customers (external and internal) – it is essential to the success of a customer strategy. The ambassadors should coach, direct and support employees to serve customers according to the CX DNA of the company. All initiatives for closing the gap between actual and desired CX should be led and driven by the CX ambassadors.
Take the time to craft your CX Essence – it’s as much art, as it is science. The investment in your CX DNA will ensure internal alignment on service delivery to ensure customers stay with you and choose you every time, buy more, and tell others about their experience. And even forgive you when things don’t go 100% according to plan, but you make genuine and sincere efforts to fix it. When everyone is clear about what and HOW to serve, the business performance indicators will do the talking!
About Liezel Jonkheid (CCXP)
Liezel Jonkheid is a CX specialist and seasoned CX and qualitative researcher. She is passionate about consumer behaviour, in particular the role of emotion and the subconscious in customer experience, buying behaviour and loyalty. She pursues the dream of creating better experiences for consumers by humanising customer experience. Her training and experience in the social sciences, communications, marketing, qualitative research, public relations, business and customer experience management have provided her with a deeper understanding of the complexities of human (and consumer) behaviour and emotions. She helps brand owners to design their customers’ response to engagement with the aim of retaining and growing the business.
Liezel is the owner of The Consumer Psychology Lab. She holds degrees in Social Work (BA Cum Laude) from the University of Pretoria, Marketing Management (Cum Laude) at University of Johannesburg and is an accredited Public Relations Practitioner (APR, PRISA) and a Certified Customer Experience Professional (CCXP, CXPA) and member of CXPA. Liezel is a regular a guest lecturer on marketing, research and customer experience management and research at UJ.