1.4 million people left the big six utilities between June 2017 and June 2018. For the most part, they left for smaller challenger firms. The reason? Switching to better tariffs certainly, but not solely. For many people, it’s the customer experience – in fact in the January 2018 Which? customer satisfaction survey, the Big Six energy companies all ranked in the bottom ten of all companies.
Yet, think of your experiences with utility firms. Chances are you’ll be able to recall being asked to rate your experience. These are firms that on one level seem almost obsessed with measuring, tracking, and presumably improving our experience of service. But does this approach take into account the whole customer experience?
Utilities are not alone it happens in all sectors from finance to telecommunications – these are all sectors where companies talk about their passion for customer service and yet still repeatedly turn up in surveys as disappointing their customers.
We recently surveyed UK marketers and a third of them admitted they don’t have a clear and constant focus on their customers. It’s not that they’re not trying; it’s just that the techniques they’re using aren’t working. They ask questions, but they’re not finding out what customers really think until it’s too late. So, why does it happen, and crucially, what can we do about it?
Heads in the sand
There are many reasons why companies become disconnected from their customers. Some might place the emphasis on driving operational efficiencies rather than creating value from customer experience and innovation.
Other times, a myopic focus on current category and what the competition is doing can hinder genuine consumer insight. This is the budget hotel chain reassuring itself that customers prefer it to all the other budget hotels, and not seeing a business like AirBnB coming. Or it’s the beauty products firm believing their customers get everything they need from its haircare range until a more environmentally sustainable competitor launches – to be satisfied with today’s reality is not the same as aspiring to better.
The current research methodology can also be ineffective and make assumptions based on demographics ignoring actual attitudes and behaviour. Or the insight is held in silos, each function doing its own research, and never bringing them together as an accurate view of the customer experience.
It’s also difficult for company executives to distance themselves from the real experience of their average consumer. Airline executives who genuinely believe they deliver a great experience, often don’t experience the brand in the same way as a customer waiting in a cramped lounge, because they only ever travel first class.
From churn to loyalty
Whatever the reason for the disconnect, it always causes problems. What’s felt to be exciting internally can translate as customer inertia. Think of the start-up whose team is full of excitement at the revolutionary technology it’s bringing to market, who are so caught up in the features that they forget the benefits and role it plays in customers’ lives, and so end up thrown by lack of sales.
Where organisations lack a true view of the customer experience the relationship tends to become overly transactional. A deeper, more accurate understanding of how customers think and feel enables you to design an experience they will enjoy and want to repeat. It turns customer churn into customer loyalty.
Look at how builders’ merchant Travis Perkins reacted to the revelation that its customers value time and convenience as much as they do price. It launched BUILT, a radical new concept which allows customers to place orders online, drive to the store to pick up the products, and when they arrive, number plate recognition identifies them and guides them to a collection parking bay where the order is loaded into the vehicle immediately.
If the customer only values price, they can easily go to a competitor, but no one else offers this speed of service in such a digitally familiar environment. The new breed of digitally enabled builder used to the pace, convenience and aesthetics of mobile-first experiences – values this way of working and so they come back.
Finally, this distance was a significant factor in the key issue the marketers we spoke to identified: a loss of momentum. A startling one in four of them said they felt stuck. Getting this clear, accurate view of what your customers think is a crucial step towards regaining that all-important momentum.
5 Steps to Reconnecting
Here then are five ways you can start to get a more accurate view of what your customers think.
- Get out of the office
When we meet a client for the first time to talk about how we can help make their brand experience more relevant to their customers, we always aim to hold that meeting in situ, whether that’s in a coffee shop, a builders merchant, or a care home. It gives us a far better view of the situation than we would get by meeting in an office.
This is vital. Leave the comfort of the desk and the insight reports, get out there and see what the actual experience is like. Engineer fruitful encounters.
- Start listening – really listening
It’s easy to make assumptions about what people think. But often we’re wrong. Resolve to open your ears and mind to what you hear from customers. Try to put yourself in their shoes, experience your brand as they experience it, and feel how they feel. Very often it’s a revelation and ensures you’re fixing the right problems.
- Get the view from the frontline
In most organisations, the people with the clearest view of what customers think are the ones who deal with them on the frontline. We’ve worked on the shop floor and sat with headphones on listening to the customer care colleagues take calls from customers. When we did this for our client BiGDUG we soon realised a large number of people rang the careline to chat about a space problem they had rather than discuss a particular product. This allowed them to reconsider the information on the website to help customers in their journey.
Reshaping their website in line with what customers actually want has delivered results for BiGDUG, and many organisations could benefit from listening to the people on the frontline. This is best done not as a one-off consultation exercise, but by flattening the organisation so there is always a shorter and more direct link between the frontline colleagues, customer and senior management.
- Involve customers
Think of ways to shake up your process and involve the customer, even making it fun for them. They will reward you with far greater engagement in the process, and far more detailed and honest feedback.
- Mobilise customer delight
It’s important to ensure that everyone throughout the organisation is focused on the same goal of delighting your customers. Once that’s happening you can share research findings more generally than just the marketing teams and bring teams together in dynamic ways to share learnings. Invite other teams along to hear from customers first hand.
Finally, make sure your customers can see that the opinions they share with you translate into change for the better.
The firms that do all of this will be the ones that show change. They will be the banks removing friction in their transactions, the gyms creating communities, the airlines and railway operators keeping delayed passengers updated, and so on.
There is a lot of work for them to do. Once an organisation has become stuck in a culture of distance from customers it takes a lot to change. But by starting with small steps change can and does occur. Start today, and begin to regain momentum.
Sarah Westwood is the Creative Strategist & Editor at Our Design Agency, experts on brand strategy, identity and communication.