Twenty years ago brands were concerned with total quality management. Then along came customer satisfaction management. Recently, some organizations have begun talking about managing the customers’ experience. This is an advanced view that suggests that what really dictates whether the customer will be a long-term asset is how he felt during his total experience at your store. This is a far more demanding, but no doubt more realistic yardstick.

Great customer experiences don’t just happen. Great companies center their operations on the customer, not on operational efficiencies. But without insight into what customers really value and a program to communicate these insights to employees, the commitment can’t be acted upon.

Here are five steps to improving your customer experience.

Know Your Customers’ Priorities

Many businesses either make the mistake of assuming they know their customers (a view often referred to as “inside, looking out”), or they’ve conducted a satisfaction survey that they trust for many years longer than it’s valid. It’s critical to periodically survey your customers to monitor how their priorities have shifted and have been redirected over time. Your business is constantly evolving. Customers’ worlds are similarly evolving. Because customers interact with a myriad of companies and organizations, their experiences are constantly broadened. FedEx’s ability to track packages, or Walgreen’s ability to fulfill a prescription nationally both impact your customers’ expectations of how your business should be serving them—even though you don’t compete directly with either FedEx or Walgreens.

Understand Your Performance Benchmarks

While performance assessment tools like customer satisfaction surveys are in plentiful use, they generally make the mistake of assuming that points of reference are competitors within the industry. This can be a major mistake. Customers’ expectations and needs are influenced by a wide range of the experiences they have. Their demands of your brand may be influenced by an experience online with a financial services organization or how they were treated at a Marriott hotel the week before. A major failing of most customer satisfaction surveys is they don’t collect comparative information.

Objectively Track Your Performance

The corporate execs generally have a pretty good idea of what they’d like the customer’s experience to be. The problem is they are usually 1,000 miles from the front line, separated in miles and corporate hierarchy. They can only trust that they’ve provided a complete picture of the experience and have offered motivated store management and counter staff to actually deliver it. One excellent method to observe how well the vision is being implemented is mystery shopping. With mystery shops, a chain can specify key elements of the experience they aim to deliver and then have professional shoppers monitor their stores to see that the elements are being delivered. If they’re not, local managers can be contacted, given the mystery shop report, and asked why compliance is low. Often managers may have a reasonable explanation which corporate management hasn’t considered. Other times, the mystery shop results will remind local managers of the importance of reinforcing corporate guidelines with frontline staff, describing the actions and helping staff members understand the reasons behind the actions.

Monitor the Attitudes of Your Managers and Staff

The leading challenge for quick-serves today is hiring and motivating good people. Good companies find it’s as important to maintain a dialogue with their employees as with their customers. Employee satisfaction surveys not only collect valuable insights into the staff and their managers, they also show the staff their feelings and opinions matter. But employee attitudes have to be carefully considered. Too many employee satisfaction surveys make the mistake of asking about the fun employees have on the job. We all want our employees to feel valued and respected, but work is work, fun and friends at work are not directly related to the profitability of a business. A far better model is to ask employees how equipped they are to perform the tasks management expects from them. Do they understand the business’ policies, do they have the necessary tools to conduct business, and do they believe management will support them in their duties? Employees who are properly prepared will be more capable of delivering a superior experience to customers.

Provide Opportunities for Customer Feedback

Many customers appreciate the opportunity to communicate with the companies whose stores they visit. They may wish to praise a service person, offer a suggestion, or describe a less-than-satisfactory visit. And offering a channel to host this correspondence can be very informative. Whether you use counter cards, an invitation to visit a Web site, or other devices, providing customers a way to offer feedback is a golden opportunity to learn and improve.

David Rich is president and CEO of ICC/Decision Services which provides clients with customer experience management programs. Terry Vavra leads ICC/Decision Services’ customer centered methods initiatives.
Customer Experience, Employee Management, Outside Insights, Restaurant Operations, Story