Customer satisfaction and the web

Summary: Customer satisfaction is a central pursuit for any company, and yet we have few clear tools to manage it. In this article we look at the usual suspects through the perspective of our web empowered customers. While these tools do help we urgently need to expand their scope, cut through the consultant speak and look for specific opportunities.

Customer satisfaction has been rightly established as a necessary competitive advantage to help us retain customers and has been helped by concepts like customer satisfaction surveys, net promoter score and customer effort, which we can summarize in the following table:

General idea.Customer satisfaction.Customer recommendations.Solve specific customer service problems.
Fancy name.Csat.Net Promoter Score.Customer effort.
What it does.Post sales customer survey.Substract customer "promoters" from "detractors"Focus on solving post sales problems efficiently.
Benefit.Gives us a service benchmark against which to improve.Only requires one or two questions.Lets us focus on improving specific problems.
Problem.Questions may not cover what customer really cares about, answers might be biased.Needs to be complemented with more questions, doesn't tell us where to improve.Applies only to customers who have contacted customer service, not the entire universe of clients.

When we talk about customer satisfaction we usually mean surveys we ask customers to fill after a sale, which we can then aggregate and follow through time to see how we’re doing; the problem is the surveys themselves can be a nuisance for customers (for instance if they’re long); they could be giving answers devoid of meaning to get away as quickly as they can; the questions can be interpreted differently from what we meant (the customer might not have the heart to give the overall experience a bad mark for fear of harming sales staff, or on the contrary might give them poor marks for something that is beyond their control); or the questions might not make sense to them:

  • Customer rates his overall satisfaction 8 out of 10.
  • Next question in the survey: Why did you not rate us 10 / excellent?
  • Customer thinks to himself: “Because perfection is only the purview of the gods, so no one ever gets a 10”. We could normalize but then other customers might be willing to give it a 10.

The first lesson is that we need to adapt our customer satisfaction questions, how and when they are asked as they are themselves part of our customer’s experience: do they feel that we really care or that we are going through the motions? Does it capture the aspects they care for? Is it an additional hassle to respond?

CustomerFrom our customers’ perspective their experience has expanded thanks to the web, so it refers to aspects beyond the scope of the traditional satisfaction survey and the control of our sales staff. Our customers now find answers to their questions through other consumers on the web, while ignoring our advertising and marginally remembering periodic sales and promotions. ConsumersWhen asking a question (does the color wear off quickly?) they get answers from their peers, which are not necessarily right but point to a much bigger experience through which our customer is discovering our product’s attributes, quality and value. As I have argued before, it is in our own interest not just to respond to our customer, but to lead them through this wider and deeper experience, so they can achieve an overall better result and a productive and even fun experience at every step of the way.

The second lesson is that we need to respond to these new expectations through the web, become another trusted peer in our customers’ network, and help our sales staff be in sync. With this expanded definition of our customers’ experience we then need to adapt our notion of their satisfaction.

TugThe Net Promoter Score (NPS) introduces the concept of a much shorter survey, usually consisting of one of two questions, such as “would you recommend us?”, which seek to summarize our customer’s overall experience; it has the advantage of addressing some of the concerns with longer surveys. We can then choose to focus on our “promoters” and / or “detractors”, which seems to play well with our customer’s interaction with our product through the web, particularly the idea of our brand’s fans.

The first problem with NPS is that it doesn’t tell us where to improve, which leads us to ask more questions, which in turn takes away its advantage over normal surveys.

The second problem is that while it sounds nice to focus on our “promoters”, “detractors” are a lot more vociferous on the web, so unless we have a plan to deal with them we might find ourselves putting out many, many fires.

The third problem is that satisfied customers are not necessarily promoters, much less fans of our brand. Brands with real fans (as opposed to fake Facebook like “fans”) took years to cultivate them, and that relationship might not be as profitable as we would like it to be: while Apple is a prime example of hard core fans for their Mac PCs, their numbers were so low compared to other brands that the company almost died several times, and resurrection only came thanks to a much wider audience through iPods, iPhones and iPads, people who generally are fans of the brand if not quite as rabid as the Mac crowd.

The third lesson is that while a simple, easy to grasp indicator such as NPS can help us see which way the wind is blowing, it doesn’t tell us where to invest, and may even derail our efforts.

Customer Effort introduces an interesting concept with respect to Customer Service: instead of trying to exceed our customers’ expectations we should deal with the specific issues they struggle with and spend more effort trying to solve, quickly and efficiently. This has the advantage of letting us know where to invest to improve customer satisfaction.

The problem with the Customer Effort approach is that its power as predictor of customer loyalty only applies to post sales Customer Service, not to the customer’s entire experience: as a general rule we do want to exceed our customers’ expectations when they are looking for our product, which is a different mindset from solving post purchase problems efficiently: meeting or exceeding those expectations might indeed preclude problems from occurring in the first place.

The fourth lesson is that if we expand the concept of customer effort to the entire customer experience as seen through the web we might find something even more useful: how much effort does our customer have to spend to find out which options are best for him? What works best for his budget? Which product attributes are more important? It’s not so much a series of problems as a series of opportunities to improve our customer’s overall result, his experience at every step of the way, and his satisfaction; this would have the added advantage of letting us know precisely where to invest.

To improve our customers’ satisfaction and hence attract and retain more of them we need to understand that their expectations are changing as their experience is now wider and deeper thanks to the web; that is to say, thanks to their interaction with other consumers, through which they are discovering our product’s attributes and what is best for them; and it is through the web itself that we need to engage our customers to improve their satisfaction. The web can help us complement our sales staff’s efforts and help them be in sync with our customer’s new expectations.

How the web affects our marketing: Effect on our customers.

Questions and limitationsTo give us a better idea of how we can use the web more effectively we can look at its impact on our business through the classic Marketing scheme, as illustrated in the table below; in this first part we’ll be looking at the effect of the web on our customers (for consumer goods).

Analysis: 5 CsValue creationCapturing value (delivery and communication): 4 PsMaintaining value
CustomersMarket segmentationProducts and servicesClient acquisition
CompanySelect target marketPromotionClient retention
CompetitorsProduct and service positioningPrice
Collaborators
Context

Why does our customer buy our product? How does he choose among products? Where does he buy it? These are age old questions which the web is changing as consumers are finding more answers about our products, mostly from other consumers, and because of their exposure to products and prices from around the world.

Cultural, social, personal, psychological impact.

As a mass medium the web is a source of general news, entertainment, a work tool, and is used for personal communication. As such the web is changing our customers’ knowledge of what can better satisfy their needs, as well as their aspirations. They are exposed to other products, other cultural perceptions of our product, can find the latest fashion before it is retransmitted by their local media. They can now belong to online communities for their hobbies or life styles which may go beyond what is available locally; and their own experience is useful to other consumers.

During their search they are also exposed to worldwide prices, which has an impact on their views about ours: Are they perceived as fair? Too high? Are they comparing the same products or services? They also develop views on the difference between what’s available locally and elsewhere: are the same products available? Are they available at the same time? If not do they feel treated as second class customers?

The moment of consumption also has an influence; I define this as the relationship between disposable income and consumers’ aspirations. For instance in a society which has little experience with general consumption aspirations will gravitate towards personal rewards and marking social status by showing one’s wealth; on the web this is confronted with other consumption moments, for instance one in which health and respect for the environment are appreciated, while social status is shown through craftsmanship, as opposed to mass produced products.

Language plays a role in keeping consumers in their silos, with english as a lingua franca that carries the cultural message mostly from the US and Western Europe, but now anyone from the cultural periphery can have a big impact if they choose their language and audience well.

To make sense of the influences of the web on our customers we need to establish the impact on their expectations, on our brand promise and on our delivery of that promise at each stage of their consumption experience, for the different segments we serve. We can already derive a few general lessons for our marketing:

  • Our brand promise needs to adapt to our customer’s evolving expectations, and we then need to fulfill this new promise.
  • We need to participate in our customer’s quest by responding, being relevant and useful,¬†showing the way, earning their trust.
  • Our customers’ experience when they search online can be richer, which can work to our advantage if we want to compete beyond prices, as they are able to better understand the different product attributes, everything that is required to satisfy their needs, and even its social symbolism. We need to compare this possible richer experience with the one customers are currently having (do they only buy mainly on price?).
  • Our customer’s path generates information which is itself useful to other customers and may thus be highly valuable to us.
  • Traditional media which push messages at our consumers and are not part of their search have a limited impact on their purchase decisions, particularly when consumers have learned to tune them out; and this applies to old school ads on the web itself, which can also be easily blocked on their browsers and apps.
  • Digital, Internet connected, viral, social media which isn’t relevant to our customers quest is of little use to us; it may be preventing us from seeing the bigger picture and diverting precious resources.

The danger is that we find ourselves out of loop with respect to our customer’s expectations; the opportunity is first to be part of this conversation and align all our contact points, from the web to our brick and mortar stores, and second, to help our customer have a more productive, interesting, even fun experience with our product.

In conclusion: As marketers we have the opportunity to make a better contribution to our company’s results by using the web more effectively. The web allows us to have a direct, personalized communication with our customers, and in many ways takes us closer to the primary mission for marketing; the other side of the coin is that our customers increasingly expect more relevant, quicker answers, which other media cannot help us provide.

To do this we can take three steps:

  1. Set our own expectations by taking a step back to understand how the web is changing our customer’s experience and expectations and how we can use the web itself to improve them. This will also help us decide on a budget and or marketing mix with other media.
  2. Set our company’s internal expectations by uncovering specific opportunities and their web solutions, and establishing how stakeholders are affected by them.
  3. Understand the resources required for web solutions, including a web project methodology which takes into account the functional differences between the web and other media.

 

Going premium on the web

IMG_9036AAs competition in cheaper and more generic products gets more intense we might feel the need to make our offer more premium. How can the web help?

We can define a premium product as one clients appreciate for its performance, quality, design, a particular style that appeals to them,¬†reliability, durability, the expertise required to produce it, as a social symbol. The emphasis is on the customer’s appreciation and expectations of the product, more than the product itself, even if it does have to conform to certain standards.

In the old days understanding, appreciating and finding such items was a luxury available to few, not just because of the price, but because of the knowledge of where to find them, the trust earned by such brands and shops and the expertise and time required to help us find the best.

Today consumers have new avenues of discovery by contacting other consumers on the web. While not all consumers are necessarily product experts, and some may be biased (they might for instance recommend a brand simply because it’s the one they bought), they do offer valuable information previously difficult to come by, such as real usage experience of the product: it is all very well if a brand or shop tells us that it’s the very best, but will it survive our particularly damp environment? Is it prone to breaking? Will it look different under different lighting? There are a myriad aspects surrounding a product which consumers look for and are now able to get answers for.

Customers’ needs may not have changed, products might be the same, but the ability to uncover all these relevant parameters is changing our customer’s experience with and expectations about our product; it follows that the very definition of what is premium is changing.

To use the web as an advantage it is precisely in these conversations that we need to be participating. Seen from this perspective what’s so startling is the almost complete absence of brands from the online conversation. Consumers are finding answers on forums, fan pages, even blogs, simply because that’s where they can find some answers, because with millions of consumers connected someone will know the arcane details of how to clean a fountain pen, why the last button on a jacket is not used, who makes the best coffee in town; we do need to be careful not to confuse the current use of these media as the only way to deliver answers.

How can we participate? We may think of our web vehicles, such as our brand website, as a “super marketer” that interacts with customers on a one to one basis; this requires specific objectives, specific policies (for instance how to deal with trolls), even a specific tone; we could also break down the complete experience into smaller pieces and think of each as a “game” in which we seek to help our customer achieve a better result, such as appreciating the engineering behind a product, feeling good about his choice, even establishing the value of his online experience as a point of reference for other customers.¬†