Putting the "Custom" in Your Customer Experience

by Jean Marie Johnson

I confess. I'm a word nut, a person who keeps two hefty volumes of The Oxford English Dictionary on her nightstand. I've also been known to snatch up tag sales copies of esoteric titles such as Remarkable Words with Astonishing Origins...as if folks were lining up behind me for the latest in the Harry Potter series. And yet, I'd never thought about the yes, remarkable meanings of the word “custom” as they relate to the customer experience.
 

What's in a word?

Ignoring my Oxford English, I went directly to answers.com which readily supplied a straightforward description: the noun custom refers to “a practice followed by people of a particular group or region.” Customs are habits or behaviors we count on to provide the welcome familiar. Consider the customs you may practice during the holiday season, for example. But it's the verb form of this simple word that intrigues and challenges me as a Customer Experience Professional. Like a tailored suit or a dazzling piece of jewelry, custom refers to something that is “made to order.”
 

Make mine custom!

As we embark on the second decade of the 21st century, our customer, i.e. “one that buys goods or services,” is quite likely to want, expect and even demand “made to order,” the very antithesis of the one size fits all, off-the-shelf experience. Yet, most organizations are more adept at instilling organizational practices, behaviors and processes that provide consistency. Therein lies the tension, the challenge and the opportunity. How do organizations seize and embrace the demands of the 21st century customer in search of a “made to order” experience?  Here's a place to start:
 

1. Reframe your mindset from service (which is about what you provide) to experience (which is all about them and what they need)

It really is time to let go of the wistful notion that customers will toe the line and become more compliant consumers. From all indications, those days are simply over. I recently had a great experience with one of those low-cost, on-line travel booking companies. I feared that the off-the-shelf would rear its ugly head in my customer experience. After several fruitless attempts, I was unable to log on with my user name and password.

Once the agent was able to identify the problem, I asked her if she could stay on the line while I logged out and then logged back on. I quickly added that I realized she may have a time limit on her calls and didn't want her to incur the wrath of the QA person. She simply and pleasantly responded that there were no time limits any longer and she would be happy to stay on the line. Wow….it was like having my hand held in the dark.

Once we got through that and I was safely logged in, I accessed my itinerary only to see that my fare had more than doubled. I was beside myself. I told her there had to be some mistake, this couldn't possibly be right. She listened patiently to me. She genuinely empathized with my disbelief and then and only then took action. By the end of the call, she had confirmed my original fare and allayed all of my concerns. There was nothing one-size-fits-all about this experience; it was clear that this agent would do whatever was needed to customize my experience.  
 

2. Listen and pay attention: Engage associates as the eyes and ears of the customer

As I work with clients, their associates consistently tell me how much they know about their customers.  And they know plenty. Just ask them. That's because customers—in search of a custom experience that meets their needs—unload on them. Your customer-facing associates are the purest source of invaluable information about customer likes and dislikes. Talk to them.  Make listening and paying attention part of the job description. Identify it as a competency.  Nurture it.


3.  Tweak and flex processes and practices

The agent at the online travel service said that she “no longer had a time limit” on her calls.  I can only surmise that this change of course was no small matter…and yet the impact on this customer's experience was tremendous. Talk about enhancing a relationship and increasing the likelihood of repeat business?  They've got me!  And happily so.  I am not suggesting that this particular change of practice is a magic bullet or elixir, because, as we've explored, one size does not fit all. The question is what are you seeing and hearing in your “paying attention” that matters to customers?  Where can you introduce more flexibility, more choice, increased options?
 

4. Invite feedback

Many organizations think that they have this one nailed. But don't be so sure. Consider a two-pronged approach. First, be proactive while mindful of the fact that customers have become weary of filling out endless surveys asking “how are we doing”?  Consider innovative and more effective ways that get at what customers are really thinking. You might ask “If there is one thing you'd like us to do/do differently/make available to you, what would it be?”  Second, be responsive. Embrace your angry, upset, distraught, furious customer. That customer (who likely represents another 10-20 with a similar experience) has something to teach you.

My husband and I own and operate a Bed and Breakfast. Our customers are always teaching us about the experience we create for them. And while much of it is positive and complimentary (these are the things we should continue doing), there are those gems that teach us what we need to start or stop doing. For example, one Sunday morning, a guest was checking out after a weekend stay. He enumerated (without us asking) what he liked about his stay with us. He then said, in a very matter-of-fact way: “Two things: you need to secure that rug beside the bed and my quiche wasn't hot enough.” THANK YOU, DR. SO and SO!” How many other guests might have thought that rug is a little slippery, or my food was a bit lukewarm this morning? Listen, pay attention, invite, and learn. Then act.
 

5. Measure results, look for stories

Most organizations have a unique set of measures that track the bottom line as well as trends, complaints and the like.  Watch these closely, particularly those that speak to the perceived quality of the customer's experience. The richest place to unearth these is in your organization's stories.  A woman once wrote in a Guest Book that what we do here “is a form of ministry.”  And, many others have commented on the warmth and ambiance of the entire experience.  Another sent us a beautiful drawing of the inn that he had made, having been so inspired by his visit.

Results quantify and verify that you are on the right track. But it is the stories that give life and texture to "custom" customer experiences you create.

Jean Marie Johnsonis a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.
 
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