Customer experience (CX) is set to be one of this year’s dominant business trends. But what does it mean and how can you do it? WARC heard John Sills, an expert on creating compelling experiences, explain why it’s so much more than a digital trend.

It’s a good time to be in CX, set to become a key element of marketing in 2018. Indeed, the topic featured in WARC’s 2018 Toolkit, which surfaced CX as a ‘digital transformation’ priority among marketers this year.

While the digital end of CX expects to swallow the lion’s share of investment, much of what companies need to do to create good experiences concerns offline as much as online, according to John Sills, a director at The Foundation, a consultancy.

The reason, the audience at WARC’s Toolkit 2018 event heard, is obvious but important. “Long-term success can only come from earning customer decisions in your favour.” The way to drive those decisions is to recognise three key ideas.

The consumer’s life > your business

Consumers have lives, which occupy the vast majority of their cognitive capabilities. Brands then fight over the leftovers. In that window, companies have to try to align with the gaps in the consumer’s life. This means being useful.

The example of Trinity Mirror’s spectacular flop with print-only newspaper New Day, which launched on the 29th February 2016, is illustrative of the chasm between what consumers say they want and what they actually find to be useful.

At launch, the company’s CEO told journalists that the idea for the product hadn’t been cooked up overnight. It came, he said, “from deep consumer insight, talking to thousands of readers”.

Ten weeks after launch, when the paper closed its doors, the CEO again went out to address the surviving press. “What consumers told us they would do and what they actually did were different things,” he admitted. “We couldn’t persuade enough people to try the product and make it part of their daily routine.”

Persuasion was an odd choice of word to describe the offering, Sills observed. Surely, if a product is useful to a consumer there should not be much persuading to do. New Day failed because it answered a question that nobody had asked.

A company’s role, and its route to providing a good experience, is to recognise the small segment of a consumer’s life that it occupies and seek to become as useful as possible in that space.

Emotion > function

Sometimes it is the sensation that remains. Sills recalled a recent trip to a restaurant ahead of a show in London. The schedule was tight. When the waiter took their order – food and drink for a large group – she did not use a notepad. This seemed odd.

As the time wore on, the party whipped itself into a worried frenzy: would she remember everything that they had ordered? She had - but the 20 minutes that the party spent waiting were horribly, unnecessarily stressful.

The function of a product or service may have improved over time, but the emotions have often changed for the worse. From train travel moving from a luxury to an everyday nuisance to the disappearance of the family doctor. More passengers move and more patients are seen than ever before, but the experience is less human.  

Ironically, brands have ceased to be human in many cases. “When we talk about emotion we can talk about being human as well,” Sills explained. Brands are just loose constellations of humans; the problem is that organisations often stop humans being human.

In part, this is a question of trust. Amazon’s returns and refunds system allows the customer to feel like a grown-up, by returning their money as soon as the post office scans the parcel, whereas other providers would return the money seven days after receiving their parcel.

“The only thing that matters is how you make people feel,” said Sills. Return custom, nudging the decision in the direction of your brand, becomes far more likely with a good experience. However, he urged caution when setting expectations, because failing to meet that standard will hurt the brand more than setting no expectation at all.

Usefulness > loyalty

Brand love is a lie. We all know it deep down, but it has become part of brands’ self-mythologizing. Take the erstwhile British high street stalwart Woolworths: upon the announcement that the store was heading into liquidation many customers expressed huge sadness. And yet there was a reason that the company was in that position: it had ceased to be useful.

“Customer loyalty is a myth. Staying useful is what matters,” Sills averred. Witness the disruption to traditional taxis with the arrival of Uber. In Sills’ own experience, the story of his local taxi firm, Neales, was instructive.

Before Uber, the company was incredibly useful: it had a large fleet, low prices, and you could book in advance. But Neales had drawbacks that people had not realised: you could only pay with cash, and you didn’t know where your car was.

When Uber arrived in town, Sills shifted. Knowing where the car was, and the ability to pay by card, outweighed the ‘just round the corner’ benefits of the local firm, even though Uber had fewer cars in the town.

Yet Neales had more to offer. It soon developed an app that plugged the holes in usefulness and Sills returned to his local taxi rank.

Bottom line

Usefulness closes the loop of Sills’ argument. Good CX means gaining consideration by improving the sliver of the consumer’s life that a brand can actually affect – herein lies the attraction for the customer. Keeping them there requires maintaining the emotional, human qualities of the experience; doing this well turns regular customers into happy, frequent customers, Sills added. As time goes by, however, ongoing usefulness dictates whether a customer will remain with you.