In recent years, the term “customer experience” has garnered buzz in the business community. Recent research found that as of 2016, almost 90 per cent of companies believe they are competing mostly on customer experience, as opposed to only 36 per cent at the start of the decade. Approximately half of all product innovation investments are expected to be diverted to improving the customer experience instead. So while the concept is clearly on the radar of many B2B organizations as a method to stand out from the competition, many companies haven’t developed a singular understanding of what customer experience entails and how it differs from traditional customer service.

Since it’s an important issue for both consumers and company leadership, every organization needs to undertake an honest and comprehensive assessment of their current customer experience. For some companies that have never codified the structure of their customer experience strategies, the first step is to develop and refine a formal plan. For others who have thought about the principles of the overall customer experience and implemented them throughout their processes, it may require taking stock of the mechanisms in place at every stage of their customer journey and improving them in pursuit of an unparalleled experience for every customer.

Differentiating between customer service and customer experience

It’s worth digging into the semantics of this topic; it has important implications to the prevalent disconnect between customer experience and customer service. The problems begin when most companies create a distinct department called “customer service.” The employees in this department typically handle tasks related to customer support, order processing, billing questions, and returns and exchanges. These are all transactional processes, which is likely why many business leaders think of their strategy solely in transactional terms.

The customer experience, on the other hand, is not based on a transaction between the customer and the company. It is the customer’s overall perception of their relationship with the organization. It is also formed as the result of a compilation of their feelings about and interactions with the brand and its representatives, beginning with initial awareness and extending well beyond the point of purchase. The responsibility for creating and delivering an exceptional customer experience doesn’t fall on the shoulders of just one employee or department. In fact, for an organization to deliver an outstanding customer experience, staff members throughout the organization have to be committed to providing reliable and thoughtful service.

The service imperative vs. the desire to provide an outstanding experience

There’s another way to view the distinction between customer service and customer experience from the perspective of your company and your employees. This distinction stems from the idea that the core of customer service is being compelled to do something for the customer, while the core of the customer experience is wanting to do things that drive value for the customer.

In the transactional environment of customer service, employees are required to complete tasks because the customer needs something from the organization. The company is obligated to address the issues customers raise, and customers feel compelled to reach out for assistance because their needs aren’t being met. Customer service is a reactive way to solve customers’ problems.

Conversely, team members work to create an innovative and unique customer experience because they have a desire to improve the relationship between the two parties. This philosophy is not focused on acting out of a compulsion, but rather working to deliver value for the customer as a central tenet that drives every function in the organization. Leaders who strive to design a high-value customer experience empower every member of their team to deliver on these touch points throughout the customer’s journey with the company. Customers go out of their way to seek exceptional experiences—and will do so time and time again. Where customer service is a way to react to a customer’s problems, the customer experience is inherently proactive.

Segmentation and how it relates to the customer experience

Designing an extraordinary customer experience is impossible if you don’t have an extensive and detailed knowledge of your customers’ goals. This principle further illustrates the difference between service and experience: In the former, you wait for customers to tell you what they need and then act, while in the latter, you anticipate needs in the hopes of delivering consistent value.

This leads us to segmentation. It’s an important strategy for B2B organizations that want to understand effective targeting of customers. In order to excel at segmentation, you need to use all the data available to you to create detailed profiles of your various customers. Those profiles should include demographic information, behavioral statistics, value priorities, and goals.

The problem for many organizations is that this goal remains unrealized: Just 17 per cent of B2B leaders surveyed in Salesforce’s 2015 State of B2B Marketing report indicated that their organizations made use of fully integrated data across all functions of their companies.

Once you are able to harness this data, you can analyze your segmented customer profiles and use them to inform your strategy for engagement across all points of the relationship. Engaging with the customer on a substantial level from the earliest points of the relationship (even stretching back before the first point of contact and into initial awareness and brand perception) is an important part of a well-crafted customer experience.

Designing a superior experience from a holistic perspective

In its optimal form, your customer experience reaches the customer from every part of your organization. It needs to be embedded within the operating philosophy of every department and in the ethos of every employee in order to remain consistent for the customer and provide them with ongoing value. Every member of your staff needs to consider how their actions and decisions during the completion of all of their job duties will affect the overall customer experience delivered by your company.

It’s important for everyone in the organization to understand that the customer experience amounts to a collection of ideas, emotions, perceptions, and experiences, and that each of these factors stays with the customer throughout their journey with the company. When talking about service, many professionals stress the idea of service recovery, or using a breakdown in the service chain as a springboard for going above and beyond. In terms of the customer experience, any lapse the customer encounters will stay with them as a part of this collection of experiences, and can’t be erased by one act of recovery.

Empowering every employee to be a customer experience leader

In order to create a consistent and engaging customer experience, you have to have buy-in from staff at all levels of your company. When possible, each employee should feel willing, able, and prepared to take actions that will positively shape the customer experience. Every action they take and every conversation they have with a customer will contribute to the bank of perceptions all customers use to form their opinion of the overall experience.

Achieving this comprehensive buy-in requires a rigorous commitment to training on a company-wide level. Employees from all departments need to understand that enhancing the customer experience is a core part of their jobs, and they should feel accountable for executing this strategy. Customer experience training needs to be thorough, ongoing, and mandatory for everyone in the organization—no matter how much they think they already know about the process or how disconnected they feel their department is from customer interaction.

Another crucial component of this empowerment strategy is making sure your employees have the tools and knowledge they need to control the customer experience according to your plan. Whether it’s technological solutions, customer knowledge bases, or the freedom to make confident decisions on the company’s behalf, every employee should have what they need if you expect them to consistently deliver on the promise of the customer experience.

Enlist leadership to make customer experience goals a priority

While every employee owns the customer experience, everything has to start at the top. When the leadership team demonstrates they are dedicated to delivering exceptional value for the customers across every touch point and interaction, other employees take notice and follow suit.

Leaders can show these goals are a top priority in several different ways. The first may seem obvious, but it’s exceedingly important: Leaders must embody these principles in their own actions and decisions if they expect others to do the same. People in leadership roles can also create opportunities to recognize colleagues who demonstrate a commitment to these principles in action. It doesn’t matter if it’s someone in their department or a C-level executive: The leadership team should always be on the lookout for employees who enhance the customer experience. Finally, leaders can participate in training programs, proving that no one in the organization is too important for a customer experience refresher.

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