Satisfaction is guaranteed by top US brands

A new ranking of US brands shows consumers on the other side of the Atlantic are not prepared to pay more for higher levels of satisfaction

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Global brands should be aware that the definition of a good customer experience differs around the world. While UK consumers are willing to pay more to be treated well, Americans are more likely to favour organisations that keep prices low, according to a new ranking of US brands by research consultancy Nunwood.

Specialist armed forces insurer United Services Automobile Association (USAA) tops the US list with a customer experience metric (CEM) of 8.34 out of a possible 10. A similar Nunwood study into UK customer attitudes last year saw premium brands Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and Virgin Atlantic all placed in the top 10.

“The methodology was the same in both studies,” says Nunwood chief strategy officer David Conway, who adds that the company surveyed nearly 5,000 US consumers for the latest round of research.

“There is a fundamentally different attitude among consumers in the US, which has been largely driven by their reaction to the recession. In the UK, we still like to treat ourselves – we like to go to nice stores and buy nice things. In the US, they are much more focused on value.”

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“Value” and “price” come up repeatedly in the US customer experience rankings. With America seen as the home of excellent customer service, the US consumer now wants to receive more for less. As one respondent says about film rental service Netflix: “They continue to add value, increasing services without increasing fees.”

Conway adds that American consumers also have far less patience with brands that “unbundle” their pricing by splitting up products and services, then charging for each component part. This strategy is employed by many airlines, such as Ryanair, which charges for seats, baggage and boarding separately.

While many UK consumers welcome the opportunity to select and pay for services separately, their US counterparts dislike being “nickel and dimed” and prefer to see one all-inclusive price.

A consistently branded customer experience is also common to the highest ranked American companies, where expectations are exceeded as a matter of routine. Roger Adams, chief marketing officer of the top-placed USAA, comments: “Trust and consistency are very important, making sure members have the same level of service whether they interact with us by visiting our financial centres, calling on the telephone or through online and mobile applications.”

The principle is a simple one, but Nunwood’s Conway argues that while the best performing companies are succeeding in keeping prices down and pushing service quality up, the competition is not. Brands that get consistency right will be rewarded with repeat business.

“The psychology of the consumer is to buy habitually from brands that promise what is required. By delivering the business model that is right for the post-recessionary situation we are now in, brands are acquiring customers that buy out of habit,” he explains.

At Starbucks, ranked 38 in the US report, each customer must be treated individually to ensure a good experience, says UK and Ireland vice-president of marketing Brian Waring. This is already very important in America but now he sees customers in the UK expecting similar levels of service.

“Personalisation of drinks is growing in the UK year on year,” he says. “People are becoming more individual and they want products and services that are more personalised to them.”

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Though UK and US consumers have distinct characteristics, it appears that certain elements of customer experience are universal. Nunwood’s Conway says American brands have something to teach the rest of the world. He claims that the internal values of US organisations are often the same as those expressed outwardly to the consumer. In the UK, the guidelines given to employees frequently differ from the way the brand’s principles are articulated to customers.

Conway gives the example of online shoe retailer Zappos, the ninth-placed US brand with a CEM of 7.89, where chief executive Tony Hsieh is vociferous about the culture of his company. “The culture is about the brand and that brand is about driving prices down and delivering value for customers,” he says.

As well as the CEM score for each brand in the report, the research also offers a net promoter score (NPS), indicating the propensity of its customers to recommend it to their peers. According to Conway, high customer experience scores correlate significantly with recommendation of the brand.

“The top 10 companies in the ranking generate substantially higher levels of recommendation and future customer loyalty than those further down the table. It is in the order of 10-20% difference in the level of recommendation and the level of repurchase,” he says.

While there is significant overlap between the highest scorers on the CEM and NPS measures, they are not identical. Southwest Airlines, Krispy Kreme, Zappos.com and Subway are all in the top 10 by CEM, but Costco (14th on CEM), The Vanguard Group (18th) and Hilton (12th) replace them in the NPS top 10. The Apple Store also rises from joint-10th on CEM to third on NPS. It is notable, however, that the same brands – USAA and Amazon – take the top two places on both measures.

So why the difference between the scores for the two methodologies? Conway suggests this implies that although customer experience is important in generating word of mouth, it is not the lone factor in convincing consumers to recommend a brand to others.

“It is the totality of the experience. It is pricing, product, the way in which the brand is articulated, the degree to which people feel they are getting value. All those things combine,” he explains. “Some companies can get a short-term gain by excelling at one of those [elements]. You can drive pricing down very hard and get a momentary benefit, but customers will ultimately see through that.”

Still, customer experience remains one of the most important elements in a brand’s armoury. Conway says that people are becoming increasingly sophisticated in the way they shop. They are willing to conduct their own research into brands independently in advance of making purchases. As a result, making customers happy is more vital than ever before. Just one bad consumer experience could have a global impact.

The Frontline: we ask marketers on the frontline whether our “trends” research matches their experience on the ground

Roger Adams

Roger Adams
Chief marketing officer United Services Automobile Association
Ranked 1st in the US survey

As a membership organisation, we have relied on word-of-mouth recommendations for most of our 89-year history. We understand the power that one person’s experience – positive or negative – has on others. We are fortunate that USAA members themselves are often the most enthusiastic promoters of our brand.

An organisation’s service culture is determined primarily by its own commitment to and passion for its customers, not by geographic location. There are businesses with strong service cultures in all parts of the world. Regardless of where they are, consumers expect and deserve to be treated fairly and with respect. Organisations that succeed are those that earn the trust of their customers and make their customers’ lives easier.

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Judith Denby
Chief marketing officer Krispy Kreme UK
Ranked 8th in the US survey

We can always learn from other countries and other cultures. Service is about giving your customers the experience they want in a way that is true to your brand.

Customer service and, more widely, the customer experience, are fundamental. We use as many channels as we can to gain feedback and insight on our customers’ experiences, from in-store comment cards and emails to Facebook and Twitter posts, as well as more formal mystery shoppers and exit interviews. We use net promoter scores (NPS) to help us quantify our customer service levels.

We do not have huge marketing budgets or a network of hundreds of stores, so we rely heavily on trying to create memorable experiences for our customers that they will want to talk about and share.

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Russ Olivier
Senior vice-president of customer care Hilton Worldwide
Ranked 12th in the US survey

Every organisation hopes that their consumers will tell family, friends and colleagues about their positive experiences, whether it is with a product or a visit to a hotel – and we are no different. We encourage guests who stay at any of the properties in the Hilton Worldwide portfolio to share their experiences.

We feel that every aspect of a guest’s experience, inside and outside of our 3,700 hotels and before and after their stay, adds to their overall experience. This includes enquiries through our website, questions and posts on Facebook pages, phone calls to customer service and the service experienced at the hotel itself through our facilities, staff and management.

Customer service and satisfaction transcends culture and borders. Customs may be different market to market, but I think a company that goes the extra mile will always be recognised.

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Brian Waring
Vice-president of marketing Starbucks UK & Ireland
Ranked 38th in the US survey

We talk a lot in Starbucks about the importance of exceeding the expectations of customers. In terms of marketing, we speak about putting the customer in the room when we are having a discussion.

The experience in our stores is delivered by our people. It is therefore critical that we create excitement and engagement from our people, so that they can connect and engage with our customers.

Our customers are passionate about sharing with us what they think of our brand and our store. A lot of it is positive, but they also share feedback on where they think we can improve. The brand was built almost entirely on the experience of the stores and on word of mouth. It is only in the last year that we have started to do advertising.

The roots of the brand and the company are in America and the philosophy of putting the customer first does come from there. At the heart of the brand and the experience is the connection between the barista behind the counter and the customer. That individual customer experience probably comes from within that culture.

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Jennelle Tilling
Vice-president of marketing KFC UK
Ranked 77th in the US survey

Everything we do internally reflects externally; we can only deliver good customer service if we invest in our people and our business. We try to do this through training, clear career progression and CSR initiatives. We promote 1,500 people a year, and 64% of restaurant managers and 61% of our area managers are internal promotions.

On a practical level, everything we do comes back to the customer; we work to make sure every customer sees and feels that they are at the heart of the brand. In some stores, it is common for our staff to remember regular customers’ orders and have them ready for them when they arrive.

The US is famous for its service style and, as our parent company is American, this obviously influences us. But we think it is important that we develop our service style to suit the team and customer in Britain.

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