Two of the country's most venerable retailers, Macy’s and Sears, stumbled badly over the holidays and have since announced plans to close hundreds of stores and cut thousands of jobs.
For fans, investors and employees, the news is sobering. But it’s hardly a surprise to those who shop there. The experiences one enjoys at a Macy’s or Sears simply cannot compare to what other merchants provide. In contrast, their stores feel outmoded, inventories me-too and personnel underpaid.
Want better selection, prices or convenience? You will undoubtedly choose Amazon. Want better entertainment, service or surprise? You’ll likely go to Bergdorf’s, Costco or corner boutique. In recent years Macy’s and Sears have wandered into a no-mans land between these two worlds. They cannot provide consumers the rock-bottom prices and endless inventory they have come to expect, nor the unexpected delights or surprises they crave. When measured purely by “experiences,” they fall short.
A lot of companies find themselves in the same position. This includes some of the biggest names in industry. Yes, I’m talking to you BestBuy, Wells Fargo and ITT Educational Services.
Which brings me to you: how would you assess the user experience (UX) that you provide customers? Are you dazzling, daring or even data driven? The reason I ask is because the market is evolving. Customers have more choices than before, and greater expectations. If you’re going to thrive in 2017, you must provide great experiences.
But just don’t take my word for it. Lots of smart people have begun talking the issue. This includes industry pundit Larry Walsh of The 2112 Group, who put “Evolution from Partner-Led Sales to Partner-Driven Experience” at the top of his list of expectations for 2017. Similarly, CompTIA Senior Vice President and research chief Tim Herbert has turned his attention to UX after considering the impacts that consumer companies are having on services providers.
“…The trickier elements of UX involving orchestration across platforms, or the streamlining of workflows, may be too difficult for some organizations to manage without outside expertise,” Herbert says. “Moreover, there is the inherent tension of the innovators dilemma. That is, listening only to the customer is not a guarantee for attaining desired UX outcomes. Customers may request features or experiences within the range of what they know, oblivious to next generation advances.”
Amid this backdrop, here are five ways to improve your customer experiences.
- Exceed expectations
Chances are you’re not the biggest provider your customers could have chosen, nor the cheapest. Something other than price or scale drew them to you. But now they have options. Your best bet for holding onto them is to exceed their expectations. How? By creating differentiated experiences. If you’re stumped, then borrow a page from Audi, which was stymied by the prospect of growing sales in key metro markets due to high rents and limited warehouse space. Its solution? Virtual Reality (VR). In crowded London, Audi opened a dazzling showroom in the fraction of space of other manufacturers by leveraging VR. When customers visit Audi’s London showroom near Piccadilly Circus, they can take a virtual test drive of almost any car in the Audi lineup. It wasn’t investment that overcame Audi’s real estate challenge, it was ingenuity.
- Don’t move goalposts
A few years ago, I bumped into Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins at the airport. (At the time, he was a senior vice president at the company.) Though each of us was a Platinum-level customer with one air carrier, neither of us got an upgrade that night. Robbins could give a damn, but I was miffed. “Calm down,” he said, reminding me that when he flew out of Atlanta every business traveler from Home Depot, Coca-Cola and more was a Platinum or Diamond-level customer. The reminder served me well as I watched the carrier change the terms of its frequent flyer program year after year. With each change, first-class seemed to get further away from where I sat. What irked me wasn’t the loss of leg room so much as the idea that someone “moved the goalposts.” One of the hottest companies in online retailing, Birchbox, is learning this lesson as it navigates through a tricky transition from up-and-comer to established giant in beauty. In mid 2016, Birchbox, which provides subscribers a sampling of beauty products for just $10 per month, ditched a reward system that gave customers $5 per month in Birchbox store credit for reviewing samples, according to Racked, a Vox Media website. “In imagining a full-size future, Birchbox forgot that Trojan horses are only effective when welcomed in,” wrote Tracy E. Robey. More than a very clever line, it’s damn good business advice: Once you make an offer, don’t casually change terms afterwards.
- Get aligned internally
Ever bought something online and tried to return it to a local brick and mortar store bearing the same name? It’s not always easy. Take the retailer Forever 21. Its return policy reads, “Gift items purchased online through forever21.com on or after November 14, 2016 are valid for return through January 8, 2017 or within 30 days from the ship date, whichever comes later. Refunds are only available for online purchases returned by mail and will be credited to the original form of payment. Returns to any Forever 21, XXI Forever, or For Love 21 location within the United States will only be eligible for exchange or store credit towards your next purchase. All returns or exchanges are subject to Forever 21’s Return Policy.” Got that? Whenever I encounter policies like this, be it with a B2C or B2B company, it’s always a “corporate issue,” which is a euphemism for “our systems don’t talk to one another and neither do our people.” So much for strategic alignment. If you’re serving customers and have merged or been acquired, don’t forget the promises and expectations others may have set. Customers expect things to work smoothly and don't care that “your systems don’t talk to one another.” Get aligned and don’t allow your ambitions to interfere with your obligations.
- Make things simple
Everyone remembers the infamous 2014 Comcast customer support call when consumer Ryan Block endured eight minutes of the worst kind of corporate hell you can imagine while trying to cancel his Internet service. (Comcast has since made changes to ensure this doesn’t happen again.) Yet time and again, reports of bad service abound. When Yahoo finally came clean and fessed up to being hacked to the tune of 1 billion accounts, it advised customers to change their passwords. That’s tantamount to saying, “eh, you fix it.” Further complicating matters was the shear complexity of the problem. As security specialist Brian Krebs from KrebsonSecurity points out, what is and isn’t a Yahoo account isn’t always clear. “Thanks to the myriad mergers and business relationships that Yahoo has forged over the years,” Krebs wrote in December 2016, “you may have a Yahoo account and not realize it. That’s because many accounts that are managed through Yahoo don’t actually end in ‘yahoo.com.’” This includes accounts managed by BT, SBCGlobal, AT&T and BellSouth, among others. Can you image giving hacked customers such incomplete information or expecting them to figure things out on their own? Before you answer, consider this: Have you ever tried to create a service ticket using your own system? If not, give it a whir. Don’t be surprised if you come away understanding what your customers mean when they say “it sometimes feels like I am working for you and not the other way around.” For some perspective, check out this hilarious report on programmers who devised “the most ridiculous ways to enter a phone number into a form.” If nothing else inspires you to reconsider your “ease-of-doing-business,” this will.
- Don’t be absurd
Half a dozen each. That’s how many accounts Wells Fargo expected its salespeople to open for each customer, with or without their consent. Little wonder thus that as many as 2 million unauthorized accounts were set up fraudulently. The activity ultimately cost the company its CEO, its high share price and its vaunted reputation. “Scandalous,” decried The LA Times. Ever wonder how these bad ideas get started in the first place? It’s bad leadership, the kind that believes or promotes absurd ideas. When eBay got hacked, its first inclination was to bury the disclosure on its corporate site, according to Wired. “EBay initially warned its customers about their data’s theft in a note on its little-seen corporate website Ebayinc.com, telling them that a ‘cyberattack’ had compromised a database of names, phone numbers, home addresses, emails and encrypted passwords but not financial information,” Wired wrote in “EBay Demonstrates How Not to Respond to a Huge Data Breach.” What kind of thinking is this? Not good. As a technology services professional, you have been exposed to all kinds of dumb policies and bad thinking. From suppliers, lenders and customers, too. Don’t compound the problem by instituting some of the very same absurd ideas that drive you insane. If something feels wrong to you, imagine what it will feel like to your customers?
Great customer experiences come from innate creativity and common sense. Good luck as you build some of your own.