Humans value consistency – we are hard wired to do so – it’s in our DNA.
It is generally believed that modern humans originated on the Savanna Plain. Life was difficult for our distant forefathers. Sources of water, food, shelter were unreliable. Dangers existed at every turn. Evolving in this unreliable and hostile environment, evolutionary forces selected in modern humans a value for consistency – in effect hard wiring us to value consistency. We seek security in an insecure world.
In this context, it is not surprising we evolved to value consistency. While our modern world is a far more reliable environment, our brains are still hard wired to value consistency.
The implication for managers of the customer experience is obvious – customers want and value consistency in the customer experience. We’ve all felt it. When a car fails to start, when the power goes out, when software crashes we all feel uncomfortable. A lack of reliability and consistency creates confusion and frustration. We want to have confidence that reliable events like starting the car, turning on the lights or using software will work consistently. In the customer experience realm, we want to have confidence that the brands we have relationships with will deliver consistently on their brand promise each time without variation in quality.
Customers expect consistent delivery on the brand promise. They base their expectations on prior experience. Thus customers are in a self-reinforcing cycle where expectations are set based on prior experiences continually reinforcing the importance of consistency. This is the foundation of customer loyalty. We are creates of habit. The foundation of customer loyalty is built on the foundation of dependable, consistent, quality service delivery.
While we evolved in a difficult and unreliable environment, our modern society is much more reliable. Our modern society offers a much more consistent existent. Again, it’s a self-reinforcing cycle. Product quality and consistency of our mass production economy has reinforced our expectations of consistency.
Today’s information technology continues to reinforce our desire for consistency. However, it adds an additional element of customization. Henry Ford, the father of mass production, famously said of the Model-T, “You can have any color you want as long as it’s black.” Those days are gone. Today, we expect both consistency and customization.
In two earlier posts we discussed 1) including a loyalty proxy as part of your brand perception research and 2) determining the extent to which your desired brand image is reflected in how customers actually perceive the brand.
Now, we expand the research plan to move beyond loyalty and brand perception, and investigate customer engagement, or the extent to which customers are engaged with the brand through share of wallet.
Comparison to Competitors
The first step in measuring customer engagement is capturing top-of-mind comparisons of your brand to competitors. There are many ways to achieve this research objective, perhaps the simplest is to present the respondent with a list of statements regarding the 4-P’s of marketing (product, promotion, place and price) and asking customers to compare your performance relative to your competitors.
The statements you present to customers should be customized around your industry and business objectives, but they may look something like the following:
- Their products and services are competitive
- They are more customer-centric
- They have lower fees
- They have better service
- They offer better technology
- They are more nimble and flexible
- They are more innovative
Similar to the brand perception statements discussed in the previous post, these competitor comparison statements can be used to determine which of these service attributes have the most potential for ROI in terms of driving loyalty, again, by cross tabulating responses to the customer loyalty proxy.
The next step in researching customer engagement is to determine if the customer considers you or another brand their primary provider. This is easily achieved by presenting the customer with a list of providers, including yourself, and asking them which of these the customer consider their primary provider.
Finally, we can tie industry comparisons to primary provider by asking why they consider their selection as a primary provider. This is best accomplished by using the same list of competitor comparison statements above, and asking which of these statements are the reasons they consider their selection to be the primary provider.
Similar to the brand perception statements discussed in the previous post, these competitor comparison statements can be used to determine which of these service attributes have the most potential for ROI in terms of driving loyalty, by cross-tabulating responses to these statements to the loyalty segments.
Establishing and measuring loyalty proxies is important, but your brand perception research should not end there. Brand perception research should produce insight beyond loyalty. It should determine the extent to which customers impressions of the brand are aligned with your desired brand image. Additionally, perceptions of the brand among the most loyal and engaged customers should be compared to those who are deemed less loyal or engaged to identify opportunities to improve perceptions of the brand among customers at either risk of defection, or not fully engaged
In a subsequent post, we will address ways to measure engagement/wallet share.
The first step in measuring your brand perception is to define your desired brand. Ask yourself: if your brand were a person, what personality characteristics would you like your customers to describe you with? What adjectives would you want used to describe your brand?
In addition to describing your brand personality with adjectives, come up with a list of statements that describe your desired personality. For example, you may include statements such as:
- We are easy to do business with.
- We are knowledgeable.
- We are like a trusted friend.
- We are interested in customers as people, not just the bottom line.
- We are committed to the community.
So, we defined the brand in terms of personality adjectives and statements. Both will be used in designing the survey instrument.
The Survey Instrument
Unaided Top-of Mind
The first step in the survey instrument, is asking customers for their unaided top-of-mind perceptions of the brand. This will uncover the first thing that comes to customers’ minds about your brand prior to the effects of any bias introduced by the research instrument itself. There are many ways to capture unaided top-of-mind impressions. We like a simple approach, where you ask the customer for the one word that they would use to describe the company. This research question will yield a list adjectives that can be quantified by frequency and used to determine the extent to which customers top-of-mind impressions match the desired brand image.
After we have defined top of mind impressions of the brand, we recommend comparing brand perception to your desired brand identified in the brand definition exercise described above. This is a fairly simple process of presenting the customers with your list of brand personality adjectives and asking the customer which of these adjectives would the customer use to describe the company.
The next step in comparing the reality of brand perception to your branding goals is to ask the customers to what extent do they agree with each of the brand personality statements described above. As with the list of adjectives, this holds a mirror up to your desired image and measures the extent to which customers agree that you are perceived in the manner that you want to be.
Identifying Attributes with the Most ROI Potential
The value of these brand perception statements goes beyond just evaluating if you live up to your brand. Used in conjunction with the loyalty proxies discussed in the previous post, they become tools to determine which of these brand personality attributes will yield the most ROI in terms of improving customer loyalty. This is achieved with a simple cross-tabulation of agreement with these statements by customer loyalty segment. For example, if NPS is used as the loyalty proxy, then we simply compare agreement to these statements from promoters to detractors to determine which attributes have the largest gaps between promoters and detractors. Those with the largest gaps have the most ROI potential in terms of customer loyalty.
Customer loyalty is the business attribute with the strongest correlation to profitability. Loyalty lowers sales and acquisition costs per customer by amortizing these costs across a longer lifecycle, leading to extraordinary financial results. A 5% increase in customer loyalty can translate, depending on the industry, into a 25% to 85% increase in profits.
Many customer experience managers want to include a measure of loyalty in their customer experience research. Indeed loyalty and how brand perception drives loyalty is the foundation of any brand perception research. However, loyalty is a behavior measured longitudinally over time, and surveys best measure customer attitudes. As a result, researchers typically use attitudinal proxies for customer loyalty. Generally the two most common proxies are either a “would recommend” or a “customer advocacy” question.
- Would Recommend: A “would recommend” question is typically Net Promoter (NPS) or some other measure of the customer’s likelihood of referring to a friend, relative or colleague. It stands to reason, if one is going to refer others to a brand, they will remain loyal as well. Promoters’ willingness to put their reputational risk on the line is founded on a feeling of loyalty and trust.
- Customer Advocacy: A customer advocacy question asks if the customer agrees with the following statement, “the brand cares about me, not just the bottom line.” The concept of trust is perhaps more evident in customer advocacy. Customers who agree with this statement trust the brand to do right by them, and not subjugate their best interests to profits. Customers who trust the brand to do the right thing are more likely to remain loyal.
We’ve seen some loyalty surveys (particular those employing the NPS methodology), which only ask the loyalty proxy with little or no other areas of investigation. We believe this is a bad practice for a number of reasons:
- Customer Experience: Customers who have affirmatively taken the action of clicking on the survey want to give you their opinion (they want to participate in the survey), and based on their experience are expecting a multiple question survey. Presenting them with just one rating scale risks alienating them as they may feel they didn’t get an appropriate opportunity to share their opinion, and ultimately feel it was not worth their time to participate. Secondly, some customers may conclude the survey system is broken in some way as it only presented them with one question, resulting in customer confusion.
- Actionable Research Results: A survey consisting of one NPS rating is not going to yield any information from which to draw conclusions about how customers feel about the brand. It will produce an average rating and frequency of promoters and detractors, but no context in which to interpret the results.
Establishing and measuring loyalty proxies are an important first step in evaluating brand perception. Additional areas of investigation should include indentifying and comparing customer impressions of the brand to your desired brand personality, and evaluate customer engagement or wallet share.
Actions speak louder than words. Brands spend millions of dollars on external messaging to define an emotional connection with the customer. However, when a customer perceives a disconnect between an employee representing the brand and external messaging, they almost certainly will experience brand ambiguity. The result severely undermines these investments; not only for the customer in question, but their entire social network. In today’s increasing connected world, one bad experience could be shared hundreds if not thousands of times over.
Bottom line, frontline employees must be authentic representatives of the brand.
Simple enough, right? Nearly all rational managers will agree with the above statement. But how does management ensure that employees animate the brand? – It is a process of alignment.
Here are five steps to align the customer experience with external messaging:
- Align external messaging with customer expectations: Repeatedly test the effect of external messages on customer expectations. Ask yourself, what expectations are we instilling based on our messaging? Additionally, the next four steps will help ensure that operational staff fully understand and are equipped to handle these promises made to customers.
- Align customer expectations with company service standards: Even in the most sophisticated and progressive companies, standards of service delivery can be out of sync with customer needs and expectations. One reason is that customers are seldom involved in the writing of these standards. Rather, service standards tend to be the product of mid-management committees, resulting in a hodge-podge of ideas and opinions that are more a reflection of operational expediency than of customer expectations. A better practice is to calibrate service standards against customer needs, expectations and experiences.
- Align service standards with training content: Training should arise from standards, not vice versa. Bring training managers into the process from the beginning, ensuring that as standards are adjusted, training content will follow.
- Align training content with frontline execution: The success of most training programs is measured in terms of the participant’s ability to recall the content, rather than to apply the information on the job. A more proactive practice is to identify specific deficiencies in service delivery and adjust training content to address those deficiencies.
- Align frontline execution with rewards and incentives: At the managerial level, incentives tend to be in the form of quarterly bonuses linked to metrics such as customer satisfaction and service execution scores. However, you can go farther. Depending on the data available, consider rewards on a much more immediate and shorter cycle. For example, on a daily basis, call centers agents can receive bonus points that are immediately redeemable at on-line redemption sites. Or a bank teller may receive an immediate reward if they display the appropriate behavior to a mystery shopper. Thus, employees receive quick, meaningful rewards that reinforce the specific skills that are needed to improve customer experiences.
These are five steps to align the customer experience with external messaging. How do you ensure your frontline employees are authentic representatives of the brand?