Recently, my husband and I returned from our honeymoon in the Cook Islands, a piece of paradise in the South Pacific with white coral sands and turquoise clear waters. We used a variety of interactive tools, including Google, Google Earth, travel sites, hotel sites, and TripAdvisor to learn about the Cook Islands and book our vacation. A trip is the ultimate experiential product. Whether you're planning your honeymoon or your annual family vacation, you want it to be memorable with minimal problems. This holds for other types of products that are researched and purchased online and used offline.
Five Customer Experience Lessons
As a marketer, consider how your customer experiences your offering at every point in the purchase and usage process. Here are five lessons I learned:
The experience starts with the research process. Think about your customer's needs and concerns. With experiential products, soft factors such as how you communicate before, during, and after the experience can make a big difference. For example, we received answers to pre-trip questions after we returned home! Consider how to make your communications go beyond the basics.
Don't try to be everything to everyone. As honeymooners, we looked for hotels catering to couples and that didn't offer children's services. Each hotel's staff made an extra effort to respond to our special needs, such as putting champagne in our room.
Delight and surprise your customers. While these factors don't have to be major, they must be positive. Used to American-owned airlines on which you must bring your own food, my husband hasn't stopped talking about the free wine he was served in a real glass with dinner on Air New Zealand. The key is to do something special that's different from the expected.
Solve customers' problems, even before they realize they have one. For example, one hotel offered us a ride to the nearest market for snacks and other items since we arrived Saturday afternoon when most stores were closed. They also offered free Internet access and do-it-yourself laundry machines.
Make payment easy. When customers are ready to pay, keep them focused on completing the sale and eliminate roadblocks and distractions. Specific points to consider include:
Accept all methods of payment that make sense. Accept major credit cards, including American Express, MasterCard, and Visa. Consider other payment forms, such as PayPal and personal checks. Think about how the payment types you accept reflect on your brand and the audience you're looking to attract. For example, many business travelers prefer to use American Express.
Simplify the purchase process. When we purchased our airline tickets online, one carrier's information collection was cumbersome and confusing because it required us to input passport information. This data could have been gathered post-purchase. Reducing steps in the purchase process makes customers feel they've had a good experience. This translates to finding the least painful way to collect non-purchase related information.
Fix payment glitches as quickly as possible. Due to increased credit card safeguards and turnover, the chance of having a payment issue can be higher. What's important to your customer is that you solve the problem as quickly as possible. For example, our credit card company froze one card due to the number of foreign transactions. Our hotel accepted the overseas phone charges to talk to our card issuer.
Other Customer-Oriented Suggestions
I discovered some other factors that can help companies improve their customer-orientation:
Have a brand personality customers can relate to. While most of the hotel staff were delightful and added to our good time, one hotel's customer service person spent breakfast talking with the residents. As a result, visitors felt a personal connection with her, and many took pictures with her since she was important to their vacation. For your product, this doesn't have to be the head of the company but someone who interacts well with prospects and customers.
Create a place where customers can share their stories. One hotel had a bulletin board in the breakfast area highlighting photographs and letters from past visitors. You can create an online bulletin board, photo gallery, or blog that has interactive correspondence with customers.
Collect customer input. One hotel included a customer satisfaction survey with its on-site information package. This paper process can be done online using simple survey technology to improve your services and provide comments for your marketing. Consider how to respond to issues you uncover so they don't become online chatter. (For more information, check here.)
Track Customer Experience Related Metrics
Implementing these suggestions can translate to measurable results. Here are some metrics you can use to track their impact on your business:
Customer input can be measured in a variety of ways, including surveys, verbal discussions, letters, and e-mail. Bear in mind, while many customers may discuss their experiences, only a percentage will be moved to communicate in an online forum. Monitor both customer comments and complaints by offering a way to communicate at every customer touch point.
Sales, particularly in terms of repeat and referred sales, are an important indicator of how customers perceive your product. Make sure you have methods installed to track these types of sales.
Marketing costs are another sign of your customer experience. For example, good ratings on a customer input site like TripAdvisor can translate to reduced marketing costs.
When assessing your product, consider the customer experience. The process starts when customers research products. Think in terms of your consumers' needs and preferences, not your company's challenges and hurdles.
Heidi Cohen is the President of Riverside Marketing Strategies, an interactive marketing consultancy. She has over 20 years' experience helping clients increase profitability by developing innovative marketing programs to acquire and retain customers based on solid analytics. Clients include New York Times Digital, AccuWeather.com, CheapTickets, and the UJA. Additionally, Riverside Marketing Strategies has worked with numerous other online content/media companies and e-tailers.
Prior to starting Riverside Marketing Strategies, Heidi held a number of senior-level marketing positions at The Economist, the Bookspan/Doubleday Direct division of Bertelsmann, and Citibank.