What's in It for Me? Five steps to creating a customer-focused experience that will set you apart from the crowd.

By Sydney Barrows

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Whoever buys pillows for the Hilton hotel chain has clearly taken the position that there is only one kind of pillow qualified to grace the head of a their customers: The very loose, soft kind--the kind where your head immediately sinks to the bottom and unless you sleep on your back, you risk being suffocated. There is no way to bunch them to achieve any firmness or support (trust me, I've tried).

Perhaps Hilton figures customers won't notice the pillows. Why else would they pay so little attention to one of the most important aspects of the hotel business--giving guests a good night's sleep?

Maybe the pillow-purchasing agent simply buys the cheapest pillows he can find, in which case, he is definitely getting what he's paying for. Or, maybe the pillow purchasing agent is partial to these pillows himself. Either way the customer ends up paying for a less than satisfactory experience.

I'm willing to bet the Hilton company is making the same mistake many businesses do-- thinking that they are their customer.

Today's Consumer Is Focused on 'Me, Myself, and I'
The only thing your customer is thinking is, "What's in it for me?" The only thing your customer cares about is, "Will this work for me?" And just because you are partial to a particular design or style does not mean the market will share your sensibilities.

You're probably familiar with a very famous quote from Henry Ford about his early cars, "They can have it in any color they like as long as it's black." Well, you can probably get away with that type of thinking if you have a monopoly on the market, but most of us don't. Today, you must be in the business your customers want you to be in. If you don't carry a product that gives them the benefit or solution they seek--if you don't provide a service that thoroughly encompasses just what they're looking for--they are going to take their business elsewhere.

Five Elements of a Great Experience
A positive and memorable customer-focused experience will set you apart from the competition. In many cases creating a great experience will enable you to charge premium prices, because it adds unquantifiable value to your service or product. If customers feel they are getting more, they'll be more willing to pay more. When you give your customers a seamless experience each and every time, you create a loyal customer for life.

Conversely, if even a small part of the experience is not to their liking, you will lose customers. If your bathrooms are dirty, if it's difficult to find parking, if the dressing rooms are poorly lit, if the checkout line is always long, if an employee has an offensive odor--all of these sway customers' perception of the value your product or service offers.

That's why when it comes to designing the customer experience, no detail is too small. There are several elements involved:

  1. what customers see,
  2. what they hear,
  3. what they smell,
  4. what they touch,
  5. how they are physically affected (e.g. temperature).

The feeling this combination of elements gives customers at the moment, or leaves them with, has a profound effect on sales.

How Can You Focus on What Customers Want?
Pay careful attention to customer comments--positive and negative--regarding the five elements of a great experience--and insist your staff pay close attention as well. Practice observing patrons. If you own a restaurant and patrons make comments about the size of the font on the menu, or if it's common to see them squinting, you should recognize immediately that these are details that need to be reconsidered. If you regularly see patrons eating with their coats over their shoulders, it's likely they're cold. But the restaurant's at the perfect temperature, you say! Well, you may be comfortable, but if your observations paint a different picture you need to ask yourself whose comfort matters more.

As the owner, you should spend time every day in the areas your customers spend the most time, listening and observing. To incent your staff, you might give a small prize every week to the employee who notices (and documents to you in writing) ways in which customers could be made more comfortable, little details that might make their interaction with your business easier, more pleasant, more fun and more memorable.

Anonymous reviews and comments are certainly useful, but not enough people will fill them out so they become an accurate barometer of what is really going on (unless, of course, the same comments keep coming up). This is where small businesses have an advantage over large companies. Large companies rely on formal surveys and more structured ways to gather information on what their customers are thinking and feeling; this is time-consuming. As a small-business owner, you can pick up on customer dissatisfaction faster than a large company would (and in doing so, implement change faster).

Remember; you are not your customer, and the experience that accompanies the purchase of your product or service is not only important, it can be more important than the actual product or service itself.

Sydney Biddle Barrows is a New York based business consultant and recognized expert on the customer experience. You can find out more about her coaching programs, consulting practice and her newest book, Uncensored Sales Strategies, at http://www.sydneybarrows.com.

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