Putting the customer at the center of your business is a hard thing to do. That task takes humility and mental agility to come to the right starting point; and that point is the customer’s own subjective reality.
It takes time spent with customers in their own context to empathically understand them; theorizing about them from a conference room will never be enough.
When you see your offering as it really is, from the perspective of customers’ messy lived experience, you recognize how many competing demands that offering is jostling against for those customers' time, attention and “loyalty.”
Continuum conducts hundreds of deep ethnographic interviews every year. We go into people's homes to understand their needs, desires and values so that our clients can foster better relationships with them. There are clear patterns in what we hear: An overarching one is the rarity of customers saying that any company gets them, or has their needs and best interests at heart.
Much more often, they tell us what’s broken. Here are three things your customers keep asking for:
1. "Talk to me like I’m a person."
- “Explain the benefit and how it plays out in my life. I don’t have a degree in math, so when you say things like, ‘Put no money down, with a 5/5 ARM as low as 2.500 percent APR,’. . . it's like you’re speaking in backend robot code. What does that mean?”
- “Give me access to all of the information in case I want to dig further into details, but speak in layman’s terms. Be direct, and layer the information so I can learn what I need and ignore what I don’t. Spare me the paralysis of too many choices.”
People’s lives are littered with this stuff: the mobile bill, the mortgage application, the survey about the packaging on your recent order, that thing from your health insurance company that reads so obviously like a bill that it has to say at the top “THIS IS NOT A BILL.” It all runs together, so people tune everything out as a defense mechanism.
Sure, jargon has its place. It is just specialized language, or technical shorthand, but customers are not technicians of your business. Do you call them “primaries and supps”? No, because they are people. For as much data as they give you, they expect you to know them.
Sometimes, the problems of technical language are just the more basic mistake of using words when visualizations would be more helpful. This is crucial for opaque or abstract offerings, like insurance, but for tangible stuff it can have enormous value too. Working for a major fast casual food chain, for instance, we learned that the visual presentation of the food on the menu was how customers formed judgments about health and quality.
When you test early designs, you can ensure that they are communicating well -- and on the audience’s terms. In terms of text, the right criterion is, How much time and attention is the reader (or viewer) willing to invest? Educating customers is impossible if they aren’t interested in learning what you’re teaching.
2. "Prove you know me."
- “There’s no reason for you not to remember everything you know about what I did in the past, what I need now and what I may want in the future. If Facebook can customize ads based on my preferences, I expect you to harvest my information to benefit me in the same way.”
One-size-fits-all solutions are a thing of the past. Customers’ expectations have changed with the growth of data collection. This applies both to the nuances of who customers are today, and also to how their needs change over time. When we create models, or "personas," of who customers are, we usually treat these more as modes that people move between rather than as fixed identities. We try to understand when and why people are in different modes.
But in fact people move through different modes based on different needs and/or emotional context. Sometimes, those comprise a predictable linear journey. Customer journey maps can illustrate not just the steps in a short-term transactional experience, but also the arc of a relationship.
People have very different functional and emotional needs at the beginning -- the "confidence to start" -- than they do as established “users” looking for guidance, troubleshooting and feedback to keep them engaged.
3. "Level with me."
- “I’m comfortable giving you permission to take money from my account without checking with me. Automatic and subscription services are convenient. But trust goes both ways. I want to know how you make money. We all understand that if the product is free, then we are somehow the product. I expect to be able to figure out your business model, and if I can’t, it makes me suspicious.”
Information asymmetry is over. Thank the Internet. People can find out stuff on their own, and they enjoy being experts in their passion areas. If they’re coming to you for info, then, it should be specific and exact, customized to their uniqueness. The increase in personalization has led to an uptick in product complexity and human anxiety. People want to know that there isn’t another, better deal out there. Don’t make it hard for them to figure that out.
The worst possible reason to obscure the model is because your company is chasing what Fred Reicheld, the inventor of Net Promoter Score, calls “bad profits.” These are the practices that make money at the expense of customer loyalty. Companies often do what their competitors are doing, so entire industries can suffer from an addiction to bad profits.
And these practices show up at the bottom of customer-experience rankings, according to Forrester Research’s Customer Experience Index. But customers don’t all respond the same way. Their benchmarks for great service can come from an entirely unrelated part of their lives.
Indeed, customers create mental models of your business based on the information that they have available. If you’re not honest about how your service benefits both parties, people become skeptical. On the other hand, creating a collaborative relationship between business and consumer gives people a reason to believe, and a way to create shared value. The lesson here, then, is: Find ways to share control so that customers feel ownership.
This list is a general diagnostic, to call attention to areas where companies struggle to live a customer-centered ethos. While the list's elements are general, the required solutions are neither generic nor universal. They depend on very specific variables: who your customers are, what your brand stands for in their eyes and what your organizational capabilities and vision are.
As you build up from "fixing what’s broken" to developing differentiated value, you will have to ask, How good is good enough? Here too, it’s valuable to see things from your customers' perspective. If they make category-specific value judgments, they do it negatively, out of an expectation born of from past experience. Think air travel.
But when customers consider their best experiences, they ignore categories. You don’t get an alibi for delivering a bad experience because your industry has technical or regulatory constraints that make great service hard. People don’t say, “Not bad, for a phone company.” It is not the customer’s job to understand your business challenges. They’re comparing you to Zappos and Disney World and Airbnb, even if you’re in neither retail nor hospitality.
Does any of this seem obvious? Good. Then you already know what you need to do and have arrived at the next, harder step, which is implementing your strategic approach, in service of a defensible vision. All these customer experience challenges take real work to address.
But they also represent opportunities, because they’re competitive challenges faced by all companies. The work of fixing a broken customer experience creates the foundation for differentiated customer value and growth -- to say nothing of a much better place for your business to be in.