A Study in Customer Experience: Is Consistency Still King?

JULY 23, 2018

We all know customer experience is important.

But “customer experience” can be an elusive topic that changes as rapidly as retail itself.  It’s something that everyone is certainly talking about, and I was curious: What are retail leaders really focused on when it comes to customer experience (CX)? I’ve been talking to experts and leaders in retail over the last few months to understand their concerns, hopes, and dreams when it comes to their CX operations.

“If I could wave my magic wand and solve one thing, it’d be how we consistently provide that experience across all our markets.”

It has been almost impossible to talk CX without talking about consistency. The Vice President of a large American fashion retailer seems to echo the feelings of most retailers: “The number one thing is the customer’s experience. If I could wave my magic wand and solve one thing, it’d be how we consistently provide that experience across all our markets.” In the first blog of a series discussing CX and our findings, it felt appropriate to start with this notion of consistency.

Is consistency still the most important focus for brands? What makes it challenging now? And how can brands stay consistent during a time when customers are moving almost too fast to acknowledge?

Here’s what I’ve learned.

WHAT MAKES CONSISTENCY SO DIFFICULT?

Omnichannel capabilities create new challenges for consistency. In-store versus online offerings, promotions and coupons, and the physical environment across stores are only a few of the things that affect a customer’s perceived “consistency” of an experience. In fact, our earliest cut of 2018 CX research (see the full-length report here!) revealed 82% of customers expect stores to offer a selection that mirrors what they can find online, and 72% of customers say product stock outs create a negative experience. When you can access a brand in so many different ways, an identical experience is near impossible.

 

Another challenge is that other brands—whether they’re your competitor or not—are also getting better at delivering a positive experience, and that raises the stakes. I spoke with Retail Consultant, Chip Bell, about Customer Experience, who summed up this added competition: “The world has changed. The thing that’s driving that change is that customers get great experience everywhere they go. Someone goes to Disney and they come home and deal with you Monday morning, and Disney is still in their head. Or they call FedEx and they answer the phone right away, and yours is the next store they call. It ups the ante for everybody. If I don’t get on board with creating a great experience, customers will go elsewhere.” You’re not just competing with your competitors when it comes to experience; you’re competing with every brand a customer interacts with.

 

Lastly, every shopper is unique. This fact may feel obvious, but it is one of the largest challenges for consistent interactions: all customers are different human beings, who expect different things from each brand experience. Unless you are a super high-end or hyper-local brand, it is near impossible to match each person’s individual expectations. At Future Stores Seattle in June, Craig Hodgson, Director Retail Architecture & Store Design Development IKEA, said, “The goal has always been consistency for our customers when they come to our stores” but “should we meet the customer in the same way when we move into emerging markets?” It’s a tough challenge right now: How can brands deliver an individualized experience to the millions of current, past, and potential customers that still rings consistent to each person? Hodgson continued, “We’ve come to the conclusion we need to be more flexible.”

“The world has changed. The thing that’s driving that change is that customers get great experience everywhere they go.” Chip Bell, Retail Consultant

CONSISTENCY IS A FEELING.

These three challenges may seem daunting, but one way to tackle them is to rethink what “consistent” really means in CX. It’s not about an identical experience. It’s about creating a consistent feeling. Rick Parrish, Principal Analyst at Forrester, recently said emotion holds the key to achieving CX differentiation, meaning, “how an experience makes customers feel has a bigger influence on their loyalty.” The experience doesn’t have to be literally identical every single time, but it has to be identically satisfying (and identically positive). Those feelings can still be different for each person and location, so taking a note from IKEA’s Hodgson, the key is to remain flexible in new markets and be agile in CX strategies.

PEOPLE WILL CREATE THE BEST EXPERIENCE FOR OTHER PEOPLE.

Large organizations struggle with consistency, arguably the underpinning of CX. An excellent plan is one thing—but how the decision makers ensure the plan is well-executed and impactful is the real challenge… and one that causes a lot of grief in retail. The solution is to equip the frontlines of a brand with the understanding, embodiment, and—most importantly—the freedom to make the most of CX initiatives.

Lauren Drexler, a Customer Science and Strategy Consultant at Elicit, LLC, spoke of Southwest Airlines as a great example of frontline empowerment. “They have a consistent vision, mission, and tone when it comes to customer centricity,” she said. “They give their flight attendants the freedom a lot of other companies don’t, and that’s what their customers love about them. They feel like they’re interacting with real people, and that real people care about them.” This structure is successful because, while the front lines are given freedom, they’re first taught what the Southwest brand means and are then deeply involved how that interacts with their role.

A District Manager at an international discount supermarket chain also noted the importance of an empowered front line: “We have to make a good impression every day because 20% of customers that walk through the door are new. My #1 priority is to have an awesome looking store every single day. Then, if I have employees that are well trained, who care about the products and their job, I’m good. The financials will follow if those things are in place.”

Customer experience isn’t just about having the same exact experience with each customer at every encounter (they’re all expecting different things anyway). It’s about evoking the same positive feeling. Consistency is absolutely still an important element in CX; it just means something a little different today.

Even if a customer’s literal experience with your brand differs slightly, the consistency in the services you provide and what the customer feels is key.

It’s more important than ever to make a lasting impression. To strengthen the positive experience with customers, you must start by strengthening the relationship between brands and your stores. This foundation empowers your store teams to embody a CX strategy and invest in its success. Even if a customer’s literal experience with your brand differs slightly, the consistency in the services you provide and what the customer feels is key. This is the first step in getting a “regular,” which I will dive into on the next blog. Stay tuned for more!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

As our VP of Product, Sarah finds solutions for customers that they didn’t even realize they needed. With 15 years in product management and more than 20 years in technology overall, Sarah specializes in creating long-term focus groups with valued clients, helping them use technology to meet their business needs. She understands that building relationships through empathy leads to the most dynamic ideas and strategies. Driven by a passion for behavioral economics and a desire to study how people make decisions, Sarah received a BA in Cognitive Science from University of California at Berkeley.