Chasing the Perfect Customer Experience

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Several surveys have shown that customer experience is the most important component of client satisfaction with a provider, exceeding low prices and other brand-enhancing actions. The total customer experience is created through a collection of interactions over the life of the relationship, beginning with the sales cycle, continuing during the installation, and extending to post-implementation when service is required.

Last week at Enterprise Connect 18, every vendor on the exhibit floor seemed convinced it provides better customer service than its competitors. I listened to several vendor panelists who promised to work wonders for every client. But, by definition, not all can be the best. And some are downright poor by comparison. Are they trying to fool the buyers, or are they fooling themselves?

I remember a few years ago listening to a top executive of a former Bell System phone company tell us during a meeting that his company deserved our business because it provided the best customer service in the industry. The audience (mostly large customers, analysts, and consultants) was flabbergasted. The company had the worst reputation, and was losing customers because of extremely poor service more than any other single reason. It's said the first step to correcting bad behavior is recognizing a problem and admitting change is needed. This executive was clueless.

To cast the firm in a good light, an executive will often tell potential customers, an investment banker, or the media how great things are, and what a fine job the company is doing. This seems to be true regardless of actual company performance. You might wonder if the executive is delusional or just using marketing spin in an effort to get a sale, secure financing, or create some positive press. If the executive were to state that the company's customer service and implementation execution lags behind competitors, the board of directors might start looking for a replacement.

You can trace the reasons why a firm might fail to deliver on a promised quality customer experience to a number of common challenges, including:

  • Emphasis on sales and revenues over service
  • Reductions in support team personnel, leaving those remaining overworked
  • Back-end systems creating more bureaucracy than assistance
  • Systems rushed to market without adequate testing
  • Lack of knowledge around how to provide good customer service
  • Poor communications, both internally and externally

Many executives don't take the time to truly understand the customer experience being delivered. In many cases, they rely on reports from those who report to them or some general summary such as a Net Promoter Score (NPS). But even a good NPS doesn't mean all customers are happy; it only means that more are happy than unhappy. And depending on how customers are selected for an NPS survey, the numbers could mask a large number of dissatisfied clients.

Vince Lombardi (with Bart Starr): Perfection is not attainable, but it we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.

No company will be perfect all the time. But if a company adopts an attitude that having some unhappy customers isn't a big deal because not every customer is going to be happy all the time, then there's a problem. Such an attitude diminishes the focus on solving problems and fixing root causes.

Coach Vince Lombardi, of football fame, once said, "Perfection is not attainable, but it we chase perfection, we can catch excellence." We need more companies chasing perfection instead of just trying to be good enough to get by.

If you're with a vendor ready to chase perfection, then take action rather than making empty proclamations:

  1. As stated, the first step is to acknowledge shortcomings and identify weaknesses. Ask your team members where they see problems. Ask your customers what you can do better.
  2. Make sure your staff members have the right tools for their tasks.
  3. Take the time to train staff not just on the products or on sales techniques, but on good customer relationship skills and communications.
  4. Try to balance the workload demands with a realistic expectation of the team -- even quality employees will have problems delivering if they're overworked.
  5. Do a better job in managing customer expectations, which begins with the sales team avoiding unrealistic promises due to lack of knowledge or to close a deal. The best final results are projects delivered on time and on budget.

Lombardi also said, "The quality of a person's life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor." We should all commit to excellence, and employers should create the environment that makes it possible.

Can you spot excellence in advance? If you're a customer comparing proposals and contemplating vendors that you don't have adequate direct experience with, consider the following:

  1. Asking for references has limitations -- almost every reference ever offered is from the top of the list of successful projects with satisfied customers. If you do check customer references, ask the day-to-day support staff what they think rather than the decision maker (most folks won't want to admit they made a bad decision).
  2. Poll your peers and other technology groups you have access to; even an Internet search may bring some additional information. Remember, however, that open review sources are not always accurate or complete.
  3. Hire an independent analyst or consultant that has experience with the products and vendors in question. Consultants can help with selection, negotiations, and vendor implementation performance management.
  4. Ask for the vendor's "A team," and perform a reference check on its last two projects. As before, talk to the customer's technical team and/or the business managers rather than the decision maker.

You won't find a perfect company, but hopefully you'll find an excellent one.

"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.