Have you ever been experienced?

When pioneering e-commerce companies were taking their first steps on the web, the key challenge was to make it as easy as possible for customers to buy. Those customers were likely taking their first steps online too, so there was often a good deal of uncertainty on both sides.

Where should the ‘add to cart’ button be placed? How do visitors like to find products they might consider buying? Why do so many people fail to complete the registration form? Questions like these have traditionally been answered by conducting usability studies. In these, customers are observed under laboratory conditions trying to carry out common tasks on the website, so that the e-tailer can learn how its website can be optimised.

Watching through two-way glass, companies can kick themselves at the errors customers make, because they see for the first time where the process hasn’t been clearly enough designed. Questionnaires before and after testing are also commonly used to confirm and expand on any issues confronted.

Usability testing has become more sophisticated over the years, embracing new techniques such as eye-tracking, which enables a company to see what the user is looking at, and remote observation, which enables lower-cost usability studies to be conducted over a wider geographic area.

Testing like this has produced excellent results that have improved the functionality of a great many online companies, and it continues to be an important part of increasing online conversion, retention and sales. What usability testing isn’t so good at determining, however, is how customers really feel about their experience with those companies.

I strongly believe that the emotional experience matters in a customer powered world. Truly understanding how customers tick and delivering extraordinary experiences they enjoy can often prove a valuable differentiator in crowded, competitive markets where customer choice is king. Sadly, in reality, few companies genuinely know either their customers, or what an experience is.

Customer experience isn’t just about having a great product, a powerful brand, a flagship store, a sensational ad campaign or a stylish website – it’s all of this and more, expressed as a single feeling or sensation. All customers have experiences, positive or negative, built from their expectations and level of satisfaction at numerous touch-points across a business’s many channels to market.

Sometimes statistical information and clinical observations aren’t sufficient to reveal the people behind the customers – who they really are, what they love, what they hate or what they enjoy doing when they are not being customers. Of course, evaluating customer experience isn’t easy, and that is why most companies focus on selling products and services and not on delivering customer experiences.

So how should these businesses go about creating a better experience for their customers? One option is to turn to a specialist with an objective eye. Similar to usability researchers, customer experience teams will observe customers to understand what they do and what they don’t do.

This often involves sitting down with customers and having a conversation about how the whole process makes them feel. It’s important to ask the question: ‘What experience have you been looking for that you couldn’t find?’ before it is possible to begin providing the experiences long-misunderstood customers have craved.

Of course a few practical, systematic steps also come in handy when understanding customer experience. I like to think of it as drawing up a blueprint before actually designing the customer experience itself.

Ethnographic techniques that allow professional researchers to shadow end users of a service and really get to grips with their experience are important, especially when confronting issues that are difficult for customers to articulate. But a customer experience team will also research a business’s target market and run workshops with employees and customers to discuss the findings.

These processes offer a chance for individuals from the business to get involved with the research at a customer level. This approach enables an understanding of the drivers behind particular customer behaviours, including why they choose one brand over another or pick up the phone when a website is readily available. Customer experience researchers then build on this new insight to present meaningful customer journey maps and conclusions to the business, advising how to enhance engagement with customers.

The findings of a thorough customer experience evaluation are as diverse as business itself. They would certainly deliver prioritised guidelines for practical changes to customer experiences.

They might also include a set of personas that describe the profile of the customers and how best to address their needs, scenarios that demonstrate how customers interact with the brand across various channels, analysis of competitors’ services, and business cases that can be used to present and justify the benefits of acting on the results of the evaluation.

Creating a good customer experience is an ongoing task. Experiences must be maintained and evolved to ensure high standards continue to be met, so it is also a good idea for businesses to plan a longer term management framework that will continue to measure, analyse and improve experiences.

The success of all this hard work can be judged in a number of ways. Many businesses dealing with day-to-day commercial realities like to talk in terms of solid metrics – business retention, conversion rates, brand affinity and of course revenues. Others are just delighted to hear about happy customers. Personally I believe both outcomes go hand-in-hand: if you can create experiences that make customers happy, they’ll spend more and will be more loyal to your business.

More information:

* Foviance
* Usability (Foviance glossary)
* User experience (Wikipedia)

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