FEATURE20 September 2012

Kings of convenience

Nunwood’s Customer Experience Excellence Programme ranks the USA’s customer service superstars. David Conway reviews this year’s top performers and the factors that put them on top.


1. Disney Parks and Resorts Company

At Disney, the example was set by Walt Disney himself. In the early 1950s, Walt instructed his senior managers not to leave Disneyland for lunch but to use the concession stands within the resort. This was so they would be able to see what guests see and learn what was needed to improve things.

Walt was always keen to know what people thought of the park and wasn’t afraid to ask them. The actor Kurt Russell described how as a child star he was grilled by Walt about which rides he liked after a visit to Disneyland. The man who built the House of Mouse would often roam the park, disguised in a hat and dark glasses, buying food, inspecting queues, watching people: how they shopped, ate and moved around. When Snow White’s castle was being built, he crawled inside so he could experience it as a child would.

Disney has pioneered the use of mobile technologies for qualitative research to make its research findings immediately useful, accessible and more easily digested by end users, using tablets in areas such as concept testing and the deployment of projective techniques.

This obsession with understanding the customer continues today. “Guestology” is the term Disney gives to the art and science of understanding customers through qualitative and quantitative research. When seeking to understand the £70bn spent globally by boys between the ages of six and fourteen, Disney sought the advice of educators, psychologists and anthropologists and used novel ethnographic techniques to understand the culture and lives of young boys.

The aim was to identify the “emotional hooks” that would attract this age group to the magic of Disney. The company believes that this type of intensive research reinforces the Disney motto that “to be successful you have to
start with the kids themselves”. Disney has pioneered the use of mobile technologies for qualitative research to make its research findings immediately useful, accessible and more easily digested by end users, using tablets in areas such as concept testing and the deployment of projective techniques.

In fact Disney has become so good at research that they have consolidated their research activities into a single enterprise: Disney Research. Launched in 2008, it aims to continuously improve guest satisfaction through conducting “unique investigations” into consumer behaviour and to test, trial and deploy advanced technologies. In 2011 Disney set itself a goal: “Know me and be relevant”. It intended to use its understanding of customers to guide its communication programme through different stages of the customer life cycle.

They focused on creating hundreds of thousands of unique experiences for consumers as they moved from thinking about taking a trip to Disneyland through to booking it, experiencing the park and then capturing and reliving memories afterwards. The result is millions of happy customers and top place in the Nunwood 2012 survey.

2. Amazon

Amazon is known for its fixation on the customer but it is the ability to exploit customer opinions that sets it apart from other online – and bricks and mortar – retailers. Its customer review programme is its largest source of customer insight. By encouraging customers to provide reviews of products they buy, Amazon can continually fine-tune what it does while enhancing the customer experience. Some 5 million US customers have provided tens of millions of reviews on Amazon.com.

By pioneering reviews 15 years ago, Amazon has almost single-handedly changed how consumers approach shopping, leading to the emergence of the information-based shopper. 70% of US shoppers say they consult online reviews before making a purchase. Amazon can react quickly to emerging trends by analysing consumer opinions, product reviews and purchase behaviour. Paul Ryder, Amazon vice president of consumer electronics, cites the change from researching reviews of big-ticket items such as cars and holidays, to commodity items such as cleaning products.

For Amazon, the reviews are not just a way of tapping into what consumers want; they are a magnet that attracts people to the site. Amazon introduces 50 new review features each year. “We spend a lot of time looking atwhat customers are doing, and what they are saying,” says Ryder.


Providing insurance and banking services to members of the military and their families, affinity-based insurer USAA has a unique way of understanding its customers. It recruits them as employees. Over 15% of USAA staff have served in the military. It is this attention to understanding the customer at a deep level that sets USAA apart. Every new employee undergoes a strenuous six-month course in order to learn what it is like to be in the forces.

Carrying weapons, eating military rations, spending time on military bases – new employees are exposed to every detail of being a member of the US military. Getting your employees to experience ethnographically what your customers experience day-to-day drives huge amounts of empathy and it is the emotional connection that USAA customers value most. As one executive at USAA put it, “When a soldier on the front line in Afghanistan wants to wire money to a sick relative we want our people to really understand what that feels like.”

This highly motivated approach to customer closeness also drives customer-based innovation. USAA was the first US bank to use smartphones for photographing and emailing cheques to accelerate the process of deposits. This innovation came from understanding that while members of the military receive large numbers of cheques from family members, there are not many high street banks in downtown Helmand.

4. Wegmans

Wegmans is a supermarket chain with 80 stores in the north-west of the US and it is described by its customers as a supermarket “theme park”. For his part, chief executive Daniel Wegman describes it as a “theatre of food supported by almost telepathic levels of customer service”. With almost twice the stock levels of other supermarkets, Wegmans provides extraordinary levels of service in an extraordinary shopping environment.

Jo Natale, communications director of Wegmans, defines its research approach as “listening with both ears” – that is, going beyond the words that customers say to understand the systems at play in their minds. “Consumers are not always as articulate about what they want as we might like them to be,” she says. “We need to be able to interpret what they say by being really close to them”. Wegmans has observed dramatic changes in meal consumption patterns and has to stay on top of these trends to continue to remain relevant.

“We believe in following our customers from a few steps ahead,” says Natale. “We live this business 24 hours a day and think we now know what customers are going to want. We look for clues to determine this (factors like health, cost and taste) and if we have success in one product area, using these clues we share this success within our company.”

5. Publix

The southern supermarket chain Publix is similar to the UK’s Waitrose. Largely employee-owned, it is aimed at the upscale customer. It has grown dramatically over recent years and now has almost 1,000 stores and a 40% market share. In a market where margins are slim, it achieves 40% more profit than Walmart. The secret of its success is outstanding customer service coupled with an ability to tailor its offering at each location to the demographic profile of its customers.

Publix has reacted quickly to “mission-driven shopping” – the shift from unplanned shopping trips to more focused store visits, complete with pre-purchase research and a well thought out plan of attack that is executed on arrival. Enormous resources are deployed to understand not just the customer, but the local customer. Publix has been instrumental in driving the state of the art in geo-demographic analysis.

Putting People First

The informed consumer. Mission-driven shopping. More for less. These are trends that customer experience champions are responding to faster than their competitors. However, successful exploitation requires an equally well informed mission-responsive employee. Ask a Wegmans assistant how to prepare a duck and they will advise you not only on cooking techniques but also on the best sauce to accompany your dish and how to make it. Quiz a Disney employee on any part of Disney’s most famous stories and they will be able to answer. Discuss an aspect of the military with a USAA staff member and they will fully understand you and position their products appropriately.

Customer understanding involves more than just knowing what your customer needs and wants – it requires the business to be so close to the customer that it can clearly see what the customer wants next.

Employee-customer interactions have moved from transactional to informational. However, employees capable of delivering informational experiences do not come cheap. According to our customer experience survey, the top retail companies pay 28% more than the control sample. The upside is that their revenues grow 9% more per annum than the average.

It is no surprise too that these companies top the Fortune Best Places to Work survey. They recruit the best people, those who can express their brand values, are enthusiastic about the category and have a predisposition to offering a great service. And by providing a stimulating, empowered working environment, their employees flourish. The result is staff attrition rates lower than the industry average and lower recruitment costs. Add to this customer-focussed innovation, higher customer satisfaction scores and accelerating profits.

But having to recruit exactly the right type of employee can act as a brake on growth. Wegmans, for example, only opens three stores a year, because “we cannot continue to be the best if we try and grow at a faster pace,” says a spokesman.

For each of our top five companies, understanding the customer is an obsession. But customer understanding involves more than just knowing what your customer needs and wants – it requires the business to be so close to the customer that it can clearly see what the customer wants next. This is what separates the leaders from the rest of the pack.

David Conway is chief strategy officer of Nunwood


9 years ago

It’s interesting to see how companies rate the best performers in Customer Experience. ‘Kings of Convenience’ certainly continues the regular dominance of Disney we have seen many times before. Once again the 'customer closeness, emotional hook' concept plays strongly; although the title ‘Kings of Convenience’ feels slightly misleading to the main point. I am however disappointed that this is very Euro-USA centric and the non-existence of Apple feels strange; we (Beyond Philosophy) put this company top of our own top 10, although admittedly this was last year. Certainly we feel that companies such as Istanbul based company Turkcell should be there or at least referenced, likewise how about Ludique et Badin in Brazil; our own CE maturity index demonstrated the huge interest developing in CE outside UK and USA. I would also point out a critical trend that supports the development of ‘shopping’ from transactional to informational. That is the execution of innovation; the ability of companies to take the risk and not just depend on Voice of the Customer research. In short, to find opportunities customers themselves may not even be aware of. A final controversial point, is for some companies are we even talking here about Customer Experience? Classically, CE is about ‘personal and memorable experiences as a distinct economic offering’ separate from goods and services. This makes Disney, which sells ‘personal and memorable’ anyway a candidate for not being Customer Experience. Personally I believe they are very much Experience, but it raises the question, how is Customer Experience truly being defined in the market today? The article nicely focuses on ‘personal and memorable’ experience creation through employee engagement and technological execution; but I do wonder if this is ‘service and product extension’ or something truly distinct?

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9 years ago

We'll take the rap for the headline if you feel it misleading, but the list was never meant to be global. It's squarely US-focused.

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