Q: We've been marketing our company's products and services successfully for several years now. But lately, our results have been declining. We have good products, but our repeat business is not what it should be. Any advice?

A: Perhaps you're feeling the bite of a recent change in customer focus. Right now, customers are less motivated by promises concerning products or services alone and are showing greater interest in what they can expect from the "ownership experience." Instead of marketing what your product or service does, the question is: What kind of experience are your customers hoping to have when they buy from you?

A recently released Wunderman Brand Experience Scorecard, a study that demonstrates the importance of customer experience, concluded that brand experience drives loyalty. It showed that consumers will even pay a premium for the brands they feel provide a better overall experience. And what bothers customers most is when the reality of owning a product or using a service doesn't live up to the expectations raised by the company's marketing.

For many entrepreneurs, this means changing from a purely product- or service-driven approach to one that emphasizes what the customer can expect after the purchase. For example, suppose your company marketed a machine with only eight moving parts--an improvement over competing products that are more complex and consequently subject to greater operational problems. To be consistent with today's new marketing approach, you wouldn't simply market a machine that promises less frequent breakdown. Instead, you'd need to take it one step further and market the benefits of the ownership experience. For example, less frequent breakdown will result in lower-cost operation and peace of mind for purchasers.

Match Perception With Reality
The Wunderman Scorecard shows that "performance"--whether a company and its products and services meet needs better than others--is only one part of the equation. Another extremely important factor is "treatment," or the degree to which customers have favorable interactions with your company.

What happens when a customer has a problem or a question? How easily is it resolved? The difference between perception--the expectations raised in marketing--and reality is often a stumbling block for entrepreneurial businesses. For example, if your marketing program promises prompt, 24-hour technical support, but evening callers have to spend 20 to 30 minutes on hold waiting for service, perception and reality clash. Or suppose you send out a direct-mail piece offering a money-back guarantee. Your sales staff is briefed, but when they're unavailable, your office staff is unsure of how to handle the calls. As a result, there's a disconnect between the promises made in your marketing and the reality customers face when measuring the experience they have working with your company.

Take a Test Drive
Whether your business has three or 30 people on staff, customers must receive consistent, positive support in order to remain loyal and for your business to build repeat sales. Unlike large businesses, which typically use outside call centers where personnel are trained to handle customer interactions in a proscribed way, small businesses tend to take customer calls in-house. So it's vital to keep all members of your staff up-to-date on your marketing programs and train them to handle inbound calls--yes, even the bookkeepers if they sometimes answer the phone.

To make sure you're not letting customers down, try experiencing each contact point in your organization from the customers' point of view. You can evaluate how your company performs by hiring a mystery shopping firm or asking several friends to test your company's customer service performance by calling or stopping in with a variety of problems or questions over the course of several weeks. That should give you the information you need to improve customer interactions, and it will provide important clues to the ways you can more effectively market the ownership experience.