When it comes to the customer experience, some might presume online brands can’t compete with their high street counterparts. In the high street, customers can browse the displays, pick up the goods, try them out, and be assisted by knowledgeable staff. Online, by contrast, is far more perfunctory, where a transaction is normally completed without speaking to a member of staff.
But a new Customer Experience League, released exclusively to Marketing Week by research firm Nunwood, shows that a lack of human contact isn’t holding online brands back. Online-only retailer Amazon and online and telephone bank First Direct storm ahead of other brands with their physical offerings to take first and second place respectively in Nunwood’s league table of 100 brands (see the top 30 brands, right).
The impressive placing of Amazon and First Direct shows there are no barriers to delivering an outstanding customer experience online, says Nunwood strategy director David Conway.
“Amazon is consistently able to set people’s expectations and either meet them or deliver in advance of them,” he says, adding: “People have emotional connections with this brand. For example, one respondent says: ‘If only it was this easy with every company, life would be great.’ It shows brands can offer a good experience without having a personal touchpoint. It also highlights how important expectation management is.”
It is a similar case with First Direct, says Conway. “[The online brand] is easy to use and offers a brilliant, reliable service. If you want to speak to someone, they are available quickly. There is an absence of problems – everything just works.”
Online entertainment retailer Play.com also performs well, coming in at 12th place, showing that a high street presence isn’t always necessary to sell CDs, DVDs and games. Conway adds: “People find Play.com fast, cheap, and that it delivers on a promise, much like Amazon.”
Quick-service chain restaurants are also strong performers in the league table. Nando’s is the top-performing chain restaurant, in eighth place, TGI Friday’s comes in tenth and JD Wetherspoon is at number 11. Pizza delivery brand Domino’s comes in at 16th, ahead of Pizza Express at number 20 and Pizza Hut at number 40.
These brands are known for their reliable service. Customers know what they are going to get before they walk into a chain restaurant, says Conway, and that’s comforting to many people.
Nando’s, a Portuguese chicken restaurant, receives kudos for consistently delivering good food quickly. Conway says: “Nando’s restaurants tend to be around leisure centres and cinemas, so people go there wanting to know that they are going to be able to have food and still make their film on time. To be fed well, quickly and efficiently stands for a lot.”
Other brands to note in the league include Virgin Atlantic at number six and supermarket Asda at number nine. Virgin Atlantic has used its VIP-style experience as a way to differentiate itself from competitors such as British Airways, and has put quality of service at the heart of its messaging in its latest “Feeling Good” TV campaign, where Virgin staff are depicted looking after their passengers.
Conway notes that Virgin Atlantic is “by a distance” ahead of other airlines in the league – BA comes in at number 60, while Flybe is 69th in the table.
The brand’s emphasis on customer service is why the airline is so far ahead of its rivals, says Conway. “When the airline first started, Richard Branson said he wanted to be telephoned every time a plane was delayed so he could feel the same pain that passengers were feeling. That doesn’t happen any more but that ethos has carried on.”
Customer experience has become an essential area for brands to monitor, especially when a negative experience can spread around social media at astonishing speed. Putting systems in place so that marketing and customer service can work closely together, and making sure brand values filter through to the customer experience is now a major brand preoccupation.
For example, Asda’s focus on value for money is apparent in its marketing and in stores, and is a key reason for the supermarket ranking higher than Sainsbury’s (17th) and Tesco (28th).
A brand’s effectiveness can be more accurately assessed through measuring customer experience than evaluating brand awareness or positive perceptions, claims Conway. “This is about real delivery rather than simply the aura a brand creates.”
Top 30 customer experience brands
2 First Direct
4 Marks & Spencer (food)
5 John Lewis
6 Virgin Atlantic
7 Marks & Spencer (retail)
10 TGI Friday’s
11 JD Wetherspoon
14 Café Rouge
20 Pizza Express
21 Frankie & Benny’s
23 Las Iguanas
26 Tesco Mobile
30 First Choice
How to have a winning customer experience – the six points of separation
1 Friendliness: Those brands that go out of their way to show they care are being rewarded on the Nunwood league table. Respondents say they appreciate the efforts that retailers such as John Lewis and Waitrose go to. One respondent says about their experience of John Lewis: “I needed something quickly for a party – they moved heaven and earth to get it for me.”
2 Valuing customers’ time: Businesses that understand customers’ time pressures will gain loyalty, especially those in sectors where customers don’t want to spend a lot of time – such as banking. First Direct has a high position because customers appreciate being able to get straight through to an agent, according to the research. Similarly, the business model set up for Nando’s recognises that most people don’t want to spend the entire evening in its restaurants. Instead, customers can order food quickly and expect a fast delivery of their order.
3 Turning a poor experience into a great one: Sometimes things don’t go to plan, but it’s those brands that have a policy in place to deal with mishaps that get customers’ votes. One respondent says they appreciate the way Amazon deals with orders that don’t arrive, saying: “The vast majority of orders arrive on or before time but when one doesn’t, I get a refund straight away.”
4 Setting and delivering against customer expectations: Managing expectations is a vital part of creating a successful brand. Setting out what a brand stands for and delivering on those promises is why First Direct is near the top of Nunwood’s customer experience table. Chief executive Matt Colebrook says the business prides itself on transparent banking: “It is about having fee structures that are easy to understand and helping people to make sure they know what they are signing up for.”
5 Demonstrating honesty and integrity: Delivering against customer expectations requires honesty. Being open about policies and procedures wins customers’ hearts and minds. Marks & Spencer’s Plan A, which publicly sets out the retailer’s sustainability objectives, gains praise from respondents in this survey. One says: “It is clear that animal welfare is as important as its customers’ welfare.”
6 Meeting customer needs in a way that feels personal: The personal touch is an important part of creating a successful experience. Virgin Atlantic makes customers feel special, according to the research. One respondent says that other airlines just don’t seem to care: “With other airlines you feel like the great unwashed – herded on and herded off.”
The frontline – we ask marketers on the frontline whether our ‘trends’ research matches their experience on the ground
Natalie Cowen, head of brand, First Direct
I think that a big driver for our performance in this survey is the fact that there is no time of day that you can’t get hold of us – our service is more on customers’ terms.
Obviously being online is key, but what sets us apart in the banking industry is our people on the phone. We talk about, from a recruitment perspective, hiring a ‘people person’ and then training them in banking, not hiring bankers and then training them to talk on the phone. We need people with a natural ability to talk on the phone to customers and have a conversation while getting the job done. It makes the customer feel like it’s an effortless and enjoyable process – which are ideas that don’t always go with banking.
We have always stuck to our mission, which is to pioneer amazing service. I know a lot of organisations say the customer is at the heart of their business but everyone here is united in the effort of making sure the customer experience is perfect. And if there are customers who are looking for a physical presence, we are part of HSBC and customers are able to do some of their banking through HSBC branches.
We run our own monthly customer satisfaction and recommendation study. Recommendation is a big indicator for us because about a third of new customers join us because of a recommendation they have received from a friend or family member. We talk to our customers three months after they join us and ask them about the experience they had joining us, and we try to find out the reasons behind them joining. It informs our strategy because we look at different ways of attracting new customers.
Everybody is talking about social media and we are keen to embrace the fact that our customers are sharing information and talking about experiences online. We are about to launch a Beta Lab, which is a test environment where customers can go and test new products and services that we are trialling, and so help us develop them. If it’s something they like we will take it forward; if it’s something they don’t we will either improve it, or we won’t take it any further.
Georgina Wald, corporate communications manager, Domino’s Pizza
We are delighted to be the top pizza chain in Nunwood’s list but it’s not an accident – we have worked hard to get there. And we would even say that 16th isn’t high enough, that we should be working to get that ranking higher.
One of the things we know we are better at than our competitors is the speed of our delivery. We know that the quicker we deliver, the quicker people will re-order. Our online Pizza Tracker shows people that their order has been received, the pizza is being made, it has been completed and quality checked. The Pizza Tracker has been brilliant for differentiating us from our competitors.
Also, we are seeing the number of online orders rising at a fast rate. People like ordering online, compared with ordering on the phone, where they feel pressured to get the call done with as quickly as possible. Having a good website allows people to have the flexibility to browse while they are ordering, and have a better look at our side orders, drinks and desserts. They can also play around with their pizza by adding and removing toppings and even making one half different from the other. We have made it easy but fun. We have created something that gets the customer involved and adds to their experience.
About this survey
Nunwood questioned 5,500 consumers in September about the relationship they have with 170 brands. They were asked to consider their interactions with these companies and then rate them according to how well the experience met their needs, the ease with which these needs were met, and the degree to which the experience met or exceeded their expectations. They were then asked to explain why they rated the experience the way they did.