Alan Mitchell: Brand values alone do not create satisfaction

Businesses claim customer satisfaction is key to their success, but careful examination reveals this is little more than lip-service, says Alan Mitchell

Customer satisfaction. Do you know a company or marketing department not committed to improving customer satisfaction levels – perhaps even dedicated to “delighting” customers? Nowadays, customer satisfaction is motherhood and apple pie among marketers. Yet, companies are finding it extremely difficult to raise satisfaction levels and, if anything, overall satisfaction levels are falling.

What’s going on? One important research-based insight is that retention rates are much higher among “very satisfied” customers than merely “satisfied” customers. This isn’t all that surprising considering that satisfaction implies your basic expectations were met, whereas being “very” satisfied means that somewhere along the line you were pleasantly surprised. Now new research unveiled at the recent Marketing Forum adds flesh to these bones.

One key finding is that for many customers, negative emotions, such as apprehension, nervousness, worry and mistrust, are often the defining elements of their overall experience of dealing with a company. Marketers, perhaps naturally, focus most of their attention and efforts on product and service attributes. In doing so they can easily neglect the things their customers care most about.

Perhaps even more importantly, few companies pay much attention to what sort of experience they are trying to create. Satisfaction by itself is a content-free term. If I tell you I’m satisfied, you know that you have met my basic expectations, but you don’t gain any insight as to what these expectations – or hopes – were. There’s a big mismatch, for instance, between a customer looking for confidence and reassurance, and a company trying to deliver excitement – and vice versa. Male engineering types expect far less emotional satisfaction from interactions than the typical female consumer: so segmentation is important too.

As Colin Shaw and John Ivens of Beyond Philosophy (who led this research) point out: “How can you exceed someone’s expectations if you don’t know what they are?” Too many companies, they suggest, “are trying to deliver what has not been defined”. For instance, only 15 per cent of the companies in the survey attempt to identify consumers’ emotional expectations of them, and only five per cent are actually designing customer experiences to evoke specific emotions.

Other things companies are not doing include: internal meetings to discuss which emotions need addressing, and which ones they are trying to evoke in particular interactions; training staff to focus on positively improving customers’ experience (the majority of staff training still focuses on how to deal with “difficult” customers); and selecting staff not on technical skills but on empathy with certain “target” emotions.

These absences belie the huge operational obstacles to actually identifying and evoking specific emotions in crucial “moments of truth”. One important obstacle is the clash between internal goals of marketing effectiveness and what the customer wants from the interaction. The car showroom – hard sell versus doubt and mistrust – is a classic example. Shaw and Ivens quote one call centre employee from a focus group thus: “They [customers] phone up for help and reassurance, but we have got other things on our mind like selling, and looking at the policies to see what else we can give them.”

A second obstacle is that few companies really map, in detail, customers’ search, consideration and buying processes. If they do, it’s usually to identify ways to influence customers at crucial points, not to understand and address their emotional needs as they go through the buying process. A related obstacle is departmental silos, which mean that, for instance, sales people see their job in terms of closing sales only. Worrying about delivery is someone else’s territory.

A fourth obstacle is measurement systems: if you’re measuring blanket terms like “satisfaction” rather than carefully identified specifics such as “peace of mind”, “hassle free” and so on, you may be missing key insights.

And finally, of course, there are widespread mismatches between the incentives created by reward systems and the requirements of improved customer experiences. One example from the focus groups: “If you’re two hundred grand short [of your target] that month, you’ll say all kind of things”. Another: “Ethics don’t come into it.”

At this point operational considerations slide into cultural ones. Worryingly, half of the senior executives interviewed for this research couldn’t list the values of their own brand – and that’s after having espoused the crucial importance of these values. Clearly, there’s still an awful lot of lip-service going on.

The other side of this coin is rank employee cynicism. In the employee focus groups, one call centre employee could spout her brand’s values verbatim – caring, open, responsive, and so on – before adding: “It’s nonsense. It just doesn’t work.”

If we examine the details of superior customer experience, then, we begin to see how and why it’s so hard to do. The required operational and cultural changes simply cut uncomfortably deep into the flesh of too many organisations. So much so that it almost becomes a philosophical test revolving around the acid-test question: how do we make our money? Do we make our money by providing a superior customer experience, of which our products and/or services are one element? Or do we see improved customer experience simply as a means to an end; of achieving more sales?

These two different answers point companies in completely opposite directions. In their new book Building Great Customer Experiences, Shaw and Ivens quote First Direct chief operating officer David Mead. He puts it like this: “It requires you to let go of your old paradigm and to embrace a new one. Most organisations simply can’t do that, because they are so fearful of what they are going to lose and what they are going to put at risk”.

If Mead is right, overall customer satisfaction levels aren’t likely to rise in the near future. However, the relatively small number of organisations that really do “get it” could really start standing out from the crowd.

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