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How to improve your customer experience in the service industry

Have you ever researched a service business – like an insurer, bank, or travel agency – and found wildly different accounts on review sites? Price, fairness, and customer service seem to swing from world-class to world’s worst. Understanding that every customer is different and that there are two sides to every story could account for this; but what about when the business is giving itself five-star reviews while customers are handing out ones?

Customer and staff perceptions of service quality are anything but aligned, and this applies in most businesses. A bank study at Sheffield Hallam University found significant perception mismatches where staff inaccurately identified important customer service quality attributes compared to customers. The implication of this is that staff end up focusing on the thing that may be least important to a customer, as opposed to the thing they value most.

This study also found gaps between customers’ and managers’ perceptions of service expectations.

All of these gaps and misinterpretations lead to missed opportunities to work on your customers’ pain points and focus on customer experience issues that matter to them.

So, how do we address this perceptual predicament? We’ve combined some thinking from academics and other CX professionals into what we think is a relatively straightforward way of approaching and improving your customers’ experiences.

Step 1: Understand

Understanding who your customers are seems like an easy step, but what we actually know is often informed by sweeping generalisations from research and focus groups from yesteryear. To truly understand your customers, you need to speak to them and get real data. Once you have the data, you also need to know how much of it is significant in driving customer experience improvements. Some data is easy to get, but not the kind of ‘meat’ you’re looking for.

An excerpt from a case study from The Royal Bank of Scotland on improving customer experience is worth quoting at length on this point:

The most powerful contribution [of the customer experience and measurement team] was the unique data set it assembled for each product and its presentation to the product groups. Evidence-based conclusions about where money was wasted, where the Bank failed to deliver, and where internal performance targets were not aligned to customer commitments galvanised the Bank to act.

Gathering this data can be survey-based, focus-group based, or come from customer service or sales representatives. Regardless of where it comes from it needs to be ‘sort-out-able’ and give you a deeper understanding of who your customers are and what they do or don’t value. It also means that internally, you can start focusing on areas that will have the most significant impact. Once you have this data, you can also begin to segment your customer base for greater insight and develop your customer journeys.

Step 2: Segment

Often mapped on a grid, each of the customer segments you’ve defined as valuable to your business will potentially have their own customer journey. These journeys include business touchpoints (from website to call centre) and customer actions; you may well have separate objectives per segment and varied teams handling each segment too.

Having this overview means you get a bird’s-eye view of where your customer is as they onboard and begin using your service. You can also see where they’ve stalled, and where effort is required to retain loyalty.

This approach puts customers “at the centre of marketing, sales and customer support in order to drive brand loyalty and repeat business” according to Don Fluckinger from TechTarget, a free online resource dedicated to serving the needs of sales and client representatives.

But The Royal Bank of Scotland study also warns us against getting “bogged down trying to map out too many possible customer journeys, contingencies, points of contact [and] clues.” Start with customer information that is actionable and then grow that repository of knowledge over time while you simultaneously work on your customer segments and experiences. You need to work with the information you 1) have at your disposal, 2) can seek and 3) can monitor over time.

Step 3: Integrate your CX vision

Gusto is a company based in the United States that automates and simplifies payroll, benefits, and HR for small businesses. This seems like a fairly standard service in a sea of hungry competitors. But what makes them different is their attention to customer experience, something at the heart of their brand.

In a 2017 interview CEO Joshua Reeves re-emphasised their customer experience focus: “When Gusto launched four years ago, we were only serving companies in California and focused on companies with one to 20 employees. That’s because we had this quality bar that we were not going to sacrifice in terms of what it means to give an amazing experience to that segment.”

That’s having a vision for customer experience and sticking with it, and not overpromising and expanding too fast to the detriment of your customers. They also happen to be top-rated among users (with a Net Promoter Score of 75) and are used as the go-to example on numerous CX websites. Starting with this customer experience vision and inculcating this way of thinking across all departments – operational and otherwise – means putting customers first comes standard for Gusto.

On top of this, Gusto has a Chief Customer Experience Officer – Lexi Reese – who originates customer experience strategies and publishes “a monthly voice of the customer pack” so the entire company is aware of customer experience at every turn and how that impacts what they sell and how their brand is perceived in market.

You need to have a vision for your customer experience, understand what other business processes support or hinder this, and how what you promise as a brand informs this. Gusto’s number one brand value is to embody a service mindset.

It’s about incremental improvements

With some 13 million customers and over 100 000 employees, The Royal Bank of Scotland knew that improving its customer experience wouldn’t happen overnight. They believed in “incremental improvements, systematically directed” and having accurate customer data at hand to start shifting the needle towards improved experience.

The same thinking holds true even if your business is much smaller. Look at what’s available and how that information can be channelled into a customer experience initiative or improvement. Be sure to assess your resources and operational procedures to ensure any initiatives can be effectively executed. Learn along the way and iterate for the best results; just as your customers are evolving, your customer experience strategy should too.

Don't fall into the trap of assuming what's important to your customers. Use their experiences and some of these steps to your advantage.


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