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Four Key Strategies for Building Emotional Connections with your Customers
By Diane Berenbaum

Most think that customers make buying decisions with a rational approach, analyzing details like features and financials. Not true. Over 50% of an experience is based on emotions. Emotions shape the attitudes that drive decisions and behavior. And, they impact behavior far more than technical or functional factors.

All buyers are influenced by their emotions. They just may not realize it. How customers care about your products/services may be unconscious, but these unconscious feelings can have a very concrete impact on your business. Emotional connections can determine the strength and length of a customer relationship. They drive passion, loyalty and advocacy.

Most organizations are much better at the material side, and the impact is clear. A recent Forrester Research survey revealed that 89% of consumers felt no personal connection to the brands they buy. Without that emotional bond, customers can be easily swayed to try a competitor's product.

Now is the time to pursue a strategy focused on the human side of service—and to make a conscious choice to strengthen these emotional connections.

What is an Emotional Connection?

The CEO of Zappos.com says that "every call is perceived as a way to make a positive emotional connection with a customer."  So, what does "emotional connection" mean? It's about capturing hearts and minds, for how a company makes us feel determines our opinions about it and our buying decisions.  It is more psychological than logical. And, more unconscious than conscious.

Pine and Gilmore in their book, The Experience Economy, note that one of the major characteristics of the experience economy is that customers become engaged in a "personal" way. And, they make a compelling case that today's customers want and expect to be "positively, emotionally and memorably impacted at every level of their commercial existence." 

This means that today's service providers need to develop and demonstrate higher levels of emotional competency.

Why Focus on Making Emotional Connections with your Customers?

Intangibles provide the real competitive advantage

McKinsey found that "customers are loyal because they are emotionally attached." We remember how we feel when we use a product or service. We may buy from those we know, but we continue to buy over the long term from those we have a genuine emotional connection with. 

Optimizing connections leads to improved business results

In Gallup's article, "Customer Satisfaction Doesn't Count," they declare that "If you don't make an emotional connection with customers, then satisfaction is worthless." Their research proved that customers don't buy strictly for rational reasons—much more important is engaging them on an emotional level. And, businesses that optimize this connection outperform competitors by 26% in gross margin and 85% in sales growth.

And, according to a recent Mori study, emotionally engaged customers are:

  • At least three times more likely to recommend
  • Three times more likely to re-purchase
  • Less likely to shop around (44% said they rarely or never shop around)
  • Much less price sensitive (33% said they would need a discount of over 20% before they would defect).

As noted by William McEwen in his book, Married to the Brand, "Whether a company is marketing hamburgers or microprocessors, there's an impressive financial return that results from emotionally engaging consumers – and there's a substantial cost that results from disengaging them."

How do you Build and Strengthen these Connections?

1. Put the customer at the forefront of everything you do

Examine your processes, procedures and even the messages you send to your employees. Where is the focus?  Is it on you…or your customers? Well Fargo is an example of an organization that has made a commitment to put the customer first. Their website proudly displays their philosophy: "Our success has as much to do with attitude as aptitude—what's in our hearts, not just our heads. Our success depends on how much our team members care for their customers, for each other, and their communities; it is the most important difference between a great company and a good one."

Every time they serve a customer, they ask;" If I were the customer in this situation, how would this experience feel for me? Did the transaction feel simple and easy? Did my issue get resolved quickly? Did the team member accept responsibility for making sure I got what I needed?" 

What are your associates saying or asking when they connect with your customers? Consider changing your processes and systems, with your customer in mind.

2. Get closer to customers' emotionality

The more your associates can understand your customers' experience, along with their feelings and expectations, the better they can serve them. And, "getting close to customers' emotionality requires empathy," notes Barlow and Maul in their book, Emotional Value—Creating Strong Bonds with your Customers.

An innovative example of doing just that is Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, designated a "Customer Service Champion" in a Fast Company study. They created an orientation program to help associates shift their perspectives after focus groups revealed that "empathy" was a key service differentiator. So now, new employees get to experience what guests experience. 

For example, at the Fairmont San Francisco, new employees get the same penthouse champagne toast the hotel uses to woo meeting planners. And at many properties, employees arriving for their first day have their cars valet parked or get vouchers for a free night's stay. This is not just a "perk" (though it sounds wonderful!); it is also a practical way for associates to feel what it is like at every touchpoint of their guests' experience.  

Empathy is even more crucial when dealing with complaints, where emotionality is even stronger. "Yet most companies and their representatives look at complaints from their own points of view," notes Barlow and Maul, and "responses are frequently ‘canned'. When this happens, the negative emotion will be reinforced."  Empathy does not come naturally to most people. Develop your associates' abilities in this crucial skill so they can recognize and manage customer emotions in a way that builds relationship and restores confidence.

3.  Listen, Really Listen

Do you regularly listen and respond to your customers?  Do you truly understand their concerns and needs; what's behind the surface? Really listening helps customers feel welcome, comfortable and important in every interaction, whether it's a phone call, face-to-face, email or chat.

Another Fast Company winner, Walgreens, has really listened to its customers for the past 30 years. When their customers' home and work lives became more hectic, Walgreens originated the drive-through pharmacy and began refilling prescriptions at any location. When customers with English as a second language said they could not read their prescriptions, Walgreens started printing prescription labels in 14 different languages. And, when older patrons noted that the print on labels was hard to read; you guessed it—they created large-type labels for older patrons.

Make a point to regularly listen to your customers. Listen for validation or inconsistencies with your brand image. Be sure to listen to your associates too. View the frontline as much more than service responders who need to meet certain metrics, but a source of essential data and a driver of customer service innovation and satisfaction.

4.  Demonstrate Respect

What can you do to respond in a way that demonstrates understanding and respect, and creates a stronger connection with your customers? Do you deliver on your promises in a timely way? When things go wrong, do you go out of your way to apologize and fix the issue fast? Do associates treat each other with respect?

For the fourth year in a row, Bloomberg BusinessWeek magazine ranked USAA, dedicated to serving America's armed forces — at the pinnacle of its "Customer Service Champs" survey. And J.D. Power® named it a 2011 Customer Service Champion, for consistently delivering on the promises they make to their customers.

At USAA, respect goes both ways. Not only do their associates demonstrate respect with customers, but the senior team shows great appreciation and respect for the team. After winning these awards, USAA president and CEO retired Army Maj. Gen. Joe Robles noted, "To continue our streak is…entirely due to our employees' professionalism, diligence and the fact that they care so deeply about our members."

It's no surprise that customers rave about their service.

What's Next?

Customer expectations are rising, creating more pressure for organizations to ramp up their service delivery. According to the Gartner Group, in less than 10 years, even the world's top brands will lose their differentiation. You have the potential to create distinctive memorable experiences that will not only delight customers, but also increase referrals and sales.

So, how would you describe your current connections? In other words, how does your organization make customers feel? Do they feel secure, content; perhaps even special? 

Now is the time to consider: How can you make a stronger connection with your customers? What emotions do you want to evoke? What can you do differently to provide the kind of service that doesn't just fill a need or an order, but inspires trust…that motivates customers to return, tell others and become advocates for your brand?

The future belongs to those who make emotional connections with their customers.

Diane Berenbaum is Senior Vice President and co-owner of Communico Ltd. and has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® and editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter.

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- Tom Leitzer
Johns Hopkins HealthCare
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