Customer experience beyond customer service, knowledge management and CRM.

Summary: As we seek a competitive advantage and to better serve our customers¬† we come across concepts that seem nice, but might be difficult to implement or fit together: Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Knowledge Management, Customer Service. To help us cut through the jargon we can use our customer’s perspective on our product, which has been changing thanks to the web.

The subject of CRM, Knowledge Management, and Customer Service has been knowledge about our customers, we can sum up how they have been generally used:

Tool or function.Knowledge Management.Customer Relationship Management.Customer Service.
Actual use.Gather and distribute staff knowledge about customers.Mine data to learn about customers.Deal with customers after the purchase.
Goal.Efficiency, sales.Improve customer loyalty.Solve post purchase problems, complaints, warranties.

All of these tools and functions are useful, although their actual benefits might not match their grandiose names; CRM for instance has been synonymous with loyalty programs, not actually managing entire relationships; and customer service is a euphemism for solving whatever problem the customer has after the sale.

We should also point out that these projects may imply substantial investments and their return might take some time, depending for instance on our product sales cycle (buying toothpaste is a matter of months while a refrigerator takes decades, so hanging on to that loyal customer might not be easy).

Our own customer’s knowledge about our product helps us see that their experience can be much broader and deeper than what Knowledge Management, CRM and Customer Service cover:

  • With a simple web search our customer can find not only the best, but how other consumers have fared in the long run, and discover the myriad components that make up not just a product but the entire experience surrounding it: What’s the best quality? Which are the essential components? Which are nice to have but we can do without? What should we avoid?
  • Our customer can also contribute to other consumer’s quests: whether staff is rude or courteous, warranty responses quick or not, which products have worked out better in the long run, if a price is fair…

The difference between what we know about our customers and what our customers themselves know about our product is crucial.

We could give the tools that help us deal with our customer’s perspective a new name, such as Customer Knowledge Management, but that would miss the point, which is that we need to think and act according to the much bigger customer experience that encompasses all these tools. Marketing has long identified all the parameters that make up our product’s value, but seeing it from our customer’s perspective lets us answer the hard questions:

  • Is our customer loyal? Can loyalty be bought with bonus points or are we confusing it with something else? Are we selling our customers and ourselves short?
  • Does our customer appreciate our product’s quality and attributes? Or do we need to keep enticing him with lower prices? Is our in store staff prepared for our customer’s wider questions?
  • Does our customer appreciate a better experience, such as faster turnaround, efficient service, and how much is he willing to pay for it?
  • What are the limitations of CRM, Knowledge Management, Customer Service and traditional advertising for the greater customer experience?

We can already draw several lessons:

  1. For the first time we have the means for our customers to tell us directly what they are looking for, what they are and are not finding, as opposed to indirect means like data mining, our staff’s interpretation of what customers want, or biased surveys.
  2. We need to see our customers’ greater experience as an opportunity for growth and innovation, to complement the efficiency and loyalty goals for Knowledge management, CRM and Customer Service. This can help us put these programs in perspective, particularly when we are in need of growth and not just internal process improvement.
  3. We need to use the same medium our customers are employing to expand their experience: the web. This means thinking beyond our own stores or distribution channels, beyond the moment of purchase and more about everything that leads to it and everything that happens after.

To meet our customer’s new expectations in their expanded experience through the web we need to take several actions:

  1. We need to be more proactive to engage more proactive customers. The web is the only mass medium that lets us be a direct counterpart in our customer’s conversation.
  2. We need to give our customers the proper incentives to contribute and make them feel appreciated when they do so. We also need the right tools and incentives for our own staff to use our customer’s contributions.
  3. We need to change our mindset to see our customers as active agents and not just as the recipients of our actions,¬† as information partners and not merely as information sources. This might be the key to everything else and may require it’s own plan to keep it from becoming an empty slogan.
  4. We need to expand our data mining through the web beyond what happens at the store to feed CRM and Knowledge Management systems, while keeping our customers’ privacy concerns in mind and their information safe; the opportunities of the wider customer experience go beyond merely attempting to track our customers on the web.

We also need to take into account the fact that customers might know more about the experience surrounding our product but they are not product or market experts, following them blindly might lead us to Homermobiles.

CRM, Knowledge Management and Customer Service are all useful and necessary, but their traditional uses respond to a more narrow, inward looking view of our customer’s experience, which has been expanding thanks to the web. We can use our customer’s wider experience as a focal point, to understand what each can contribute, as well as how to use the web itself to engage our customers.