What do Sabi-Sabi, Moyos and Starbucks — or Kalahari.net on the web for that matter — all have in common?
The quick answer is that they have all tuned into a different way of dealing with customers. They are making their services come alive by turning their customer offering into a customer experience. In doing so, they are differentiating themselves in a way that is vibrant and unique.
Each of their customers has room in their head space for only one such experience. If it is your company’s experience, that completely locks out any competition. It has made Sabi-Sabi a leader in a world-class South African tourism sector. It has made Starbucks the largest business of its kind globally. It is an approach that works — if you can crack it.
There lies the rub: implementing this approach is demanding. The techniques pervade the whole organisation and are not all obvious; so many businesses will rather not go there. For some, however, there is no choice. In particular industries, the service is what you actually sell. That is when service leadership becomes absolutely essential. Customers do follow companies that lead in service, so shouldn’t this trend be of widespread interest?
Implementation starts with a strategic decision that you are in business to deliver value to customers. You want your service to achieve three things. First, recognise that, in some way, each customer is a guest. Applying the rules of hospitality — feel free to use some imagination — will make your customers feel cared for and valued. They then are receptive to anything else, easy or difficult, that follows.
Second, you want their experience to be memorable in a positive way. Then you are in your customers’ head space for good. The guideline to staff who deliver your service is that last impressions are lasting — they really do count.
Third, you would like to be able to deliver an experience that is so valuable that you can charge for it even if, in reality, you choose not to.
Pine and Gilmore, authors of The Experience Economy where this trend was first documented, put it this way: “Companies should think about what they would do differently if they charged admission.’”
At Sunshine Ford, located on the Australian Gold Coast, car service customers — one up from a visit to the dentist — are made to feel like guests, with espresso coffee and freshly baked biscuits in a congenial, spotless environment.
Starbucks does not charge for admission, but its phenomenal coffee sales are based on creating a space where the ambience is what makes people stay.
According to customers, Kalahari.net makes its experience memorable by phoning people who have cancelled — yes, cancelled — their order to check that the details are correct and ensure they experience no inconvenience. That is what builds value.
So what are some of the practicalities? For starters, the experience needs to have a theme — one that resonates with customers and staff. For Starbucks, it is the ambience. For Discovery Health, it is its Vitality programme. The themes give staff some meaning and guidance in the role they play daily. They also leverage expectations of value by customers very effectively, expectations that are then turned into impressions by deliberately managed cues — such as the espresso at Sunshine Ford.
Making the cues easy for staff to manage is an art form in which simplicity is a virtue. More important, the negative cues that jar customers need to be picked up early and changed. Managing negative cues requires an emphasis on soliciting customer feedback in a form that most current customer research is just not up to. So Iook at the detail in your customer research. If it is absent, you need to think again: in practical terms, what is your research telling you about the details of your customer experiences?
To be memorable, mix in memorabilia. That may be a free T-shirt or cap as an apology, but it is most likely to be a negative customer experience from which you recover brilliantly. More than anything else, customers remember service recovery — just like the Kalahari.net experience implies.
All this makes customer management sound a little like staging a theatre production. True. Like a great theatre piece, you want to engage the senses, emotions and intellect of your audience as completely as possible.
You want each customer’s experience to resonate for them.
Like a play, it is the detail that is demanding. Yes, the marketing is crucial, but as Disneyland — another exponent of the experience economy — demonstrates, it is your cast and setting that carry the show.
▪Sid Cohn is a lecturer at Wits Business School and principal at ServiceMix, a service management consultancy and business partner of PSA