OPINION20 April 2016

Consumer (not customer) experience

Opinion UK

Understanding what influences a person buying your products or services needs to start before they ever become an actual customer says Virginia Monk.

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Customer experience, voice of the customer, customer satisfaction – whatever name you give it – this area of insight is a high priority for businesses. Understanding how customer relationships are built, maintained and repaired is often central to the success of big brands in competitive markets.

However, such focus can occasionally be to the detriment of the ‘experiences’ that customers go through before they choose a bank, energy supplier or supermarket, for example. While it’s considered a hygiene factor to have a reliable measure of brand health (via a brand tracker or similar), it’s often the case that the experiences and interactions of non-customers are not accurately captured here.

The breadth of opportunities for consumers to rapidly share content with vast audiences online has opened up both fresh possibilities and threats for brands. With the terror of ‘United breaks guitars’ and viral films of UPS delivery men throwing new computers over fences constantly in the background, companies cannot afford to drop the ball. And in hyper competitive markets where there is slim differentiation between competitors, the pressure is felt even more greatly.

The challenge that brands face is that customer experience doesn’t begin with the first interaction a customer satisfaction programme records. The way that CRM systems and C-sat programmes are built, and the people who build and manage them, create a reliance on sophisticated technology and complex research programmes to understand the influence of customer touch-points.  It’s easy to get sucked into the minutiae of the connections between these touch-points, to try and understand the links and causalities, thereby focusing entirely on customer experience and missing out on the bigger picture – the total consumer experience.

Consumer experience is delivered through expectations built by the brand prior to purchase/use. It’s built through advertising, social media, recommendations and a host of other factors. These multiple brand experiences built by brand communications create understanding and interactions that don’t inevitably, sequentially or automatically result in a consumer becoming a customer.

While the research industry is excellent at building programmes and tools to understand the power and impact of brands and communications, this all too often bears no relation to VoC programmes. And vice versa. Businesses can invest enormous sums in monitoring customer experience but, without relating this to brand perceptions and expectations, it is impossible to appreciate the entirety of the consumer experience.

A major driver of this ‘silo’ effect is that the research areas of customer experience and brand reach/influence are often treated as entirely separate pursuits. They are often funded from separate budgets and managed by separate teams within the client organisation.

Brand research typically attracts much more creative-based solutions, often with a focus on seeking new ideas and differentiation. By contrast, customer experience research is centred far more around making sense of vast volumes of data, typically attracting highly numerate and analytical researchers, and often employing technology to make sense of large, disparate, fast-moving data-sets.

It’s hardly ground-breaking to say that these areas of research could work more cohesively (both in client and agency organisations), but we do think that small steps to integrate the way that these insights are viewed can make a big difference.

For example, understanding the link between brand perceptions/promises and satisfaction can unlock a wealth of information to impact customer loyalty and reduce critical early-life churn. While drawing parallels between acquisition advertising activity (such a ‘new customer offers’) and existing customer product/price perceptions can enable businesses to identify root causes of dissatisfaction and churn.

Thinking back to our work in the area of demographics and psychographics, we know that brands cannot rely on a single system to understand such a complex issue as consumer engagement.

To understand the full picture of consumer experience businesses must have more than one insight string to their bow, drawing together findings from a wide spectrum of research sources. Measuring engagement and behaviours of existing customers is crucial, but progressive businesses focus on wider consumer perceptions to understand the true consumer journey with their brand.   

Virginia Monk is managing director of Network Research