Recently, I developed an interest for consumer experiences. Experiences from the perspective of products or services that are being positioned for public consumption. I wouldn’t say this is something I had always been observant of until I encountered a recent mentor of mine (of blessed memory) who was my boss for a reasonable while. We never really went in depth into what exactly that meant in the context of the work we did at the time, but he did genuinely have a passion for delivering outstanding experiences to consumers of any product or service within his scope of influence. This, I got to learn about him from the few 1-on-1 discussions we had and eventually from his personal blog which I had the opportunity to go through recently. I digress.
I can’t say at this very moment that I’m an expert at shaping or architecting experiences but from my little research and reading since I developed this interest, I have encountered various schools of thought, ideas and bodies of knowledge around what shaping a user, customer or client’s experience really means. From my vantage point, it is beginning to make a lot of sense. Companies like Apple, Starbucks, Amazon and Zappos are constantly being exposed in media as hallmarks of service and consumer experiences. Taking a closer look at these companies, one realizes that they actually do a lot of work to the very minute details to ensure that they are sparking the right emotions at every touchpoint a consumer, or potential consumer of their products or services encounters. It occurs by design; not by accident or a stroke of luck.
The reason why they do this is pretty straightforward. In a lot of consumer industries today, the competition is pretty fierce. The cost of starting a business has drastically reduced from back in the day. The barriers to entry around marketing and getting people talking has also reduced significantly. Technology has played a huge role in enabling the small and medium business compete effectively with large enterprises, giving them a run for the markets they once dominated. Think about the effect social media currently has on the public. Think about online marketing, how companies like Google have created Adwords; allowing almost anyone with a reasonable budget reach millions of people doing Google searches for keywords relating to the consumers they are trying to target. The effect is pretty stunning and anyone including you and I have the ability to reach people in ways that only companies with limitless budgets could do 15+ years ago.
What does this mean? Competition is fierce, products and services get to market faster, and the typical consumer’s alternatives are now almost limitless and very accessible. At this point, the driving forces that makes a consumer stick to a certain brand are more emotion than need driven, contrary to the way they once used to be. As a result, companies that are able to spark the right type of emotions within their consumer base are the ones that are able to attract and keep that consumer base. How does this all play in to shaping consumer experiences?
Well, it is easy to take a shot at designing a product or service and assuming that the consumer base will actually be interested and willing to pay for the product or service. But we humans, as you probably know, are very ‘self’ driven by nature. We only want to engage in things, thoughts or relationships that ignite some form of pleasure or happiness within us. Little wonder Zappos’ tagline goes “Delivering Happiness,” even though they sell shoes, clothing and apparel. Little wonder they have been so successful.
To be honest, developing a commercial product or service is not exactly the most emotional process ever. Usually, you are trying to solve a problem or fill a void within a market. That in of itself is not a really ‘sexy’ process (for lack of a better term,) and thinking from the consumer’s perspective inwards while developing could be an insurmountable challenge. This is exactly what makes it an opportunity for the few companies that are able to get it right. When a small company; most prominently in Technology comes and disrupts a niche, it is usually because they figured out a better and easier way for the consumer to use their product or service. Think of Google shaking Yahoo, Altavista etc. to their roots back in the day with the plain white screen, a logo and a text box, or Facebook making the almighty MySpace almost useless within a matter 2 to 3 years. It is all about the consumer here, and figuring out a better, easier or cooler way to deliver a product or service to this consumer in today’s world is the only way to keep their attention, and their wallet (*cough*cough*.) What better way to do so than to actually keep their emotions and potential experiences at the forefront of every thought and decision that goes into delivering to the products or services they will be consuming? Shaping their experience if you will? It is a popular saying that attention to detail occurs by design, not by default, especially when it involves 2 or more people (as in a company) with competing goals (like reaching set targets).
Companies that will stand the test of our constantly evolving times are companies that are always paying attention to details and are willing to invest into relationships with their consumers. This involves constantly asking themselves the question “What will our consumers think about this change?” When new products, features, projects or departments are being created, asking themselves “How will this impact the way our consumers engage with us and how can we keep this as least intrusive as possible?” “Where are the possible loopholes to delivering an outstanding experience to our consumers and what can be done to mitigate them before actually executing?” Not only asking themselves these questions, but challenging themselves to make their product or service the least resistant to buy, use or relate with. Finally and most importantly, creating, and nuturing a relationship with their consumers through their employees that make the consumers feel like friends of the brand, not consumers of the brand. In some industries, this is cost prohibitive. However, the cost of delivering experiences is priceless.
Reading “The Starbucks Experience” by Joseph Michelli (affiliate link), a customer he interviewed stated “Starbucks could very well operate without even selling coffee. They could charge an entrance fee and offer nothing else but a room and mellow Bob Marley music softly playing in the background, and people would still come.” I’m not sure I entirely agree with that, but the message is clear, Starbucks pays attention to every minute detail; to the type of music they play, the position of the coffee bar, the type of furniture they use, the attitude of their staff, the way people ‘feel’ when they go into the locations and the lengths to which they go to ensure everyone leaves with a pleasant and outstanding experience. Reviews I’ve heard about Starbucks from every single coffee enthusiast I know in every walk of life are never passive about their expression of pleasure. They are usually passionate, they also usually have that little gold Starbucks card. I’m not a big coffee drinker myself. I only go there for the zen environment and free wifi. I usually end up with a Lattè though. Please Starbucks! Please, come and have my wallet! 🙂
It is also from this realization that metrics like “Customer Effort” are being considered and adopted in contact centers that cater to companies in various industries. This is not to say I’m a big advocate of measuring every single thing, but you can be sure that if this metric has gained some traction, some intellectuals somewhere have thought of it as something that needs to be paid some attention and managed.
In recent times, depending on the product or service being delivered, and the practice, you hear this premise being referred to as Customer Experience Design, User Experience Design and the likes. These days, consumer-centric companies have a C-Level position called the Chief Experience Officer (CXO) for a board level executive who is the executive sponsor in charge of experiences being shaped within the organization. This includes product, purchasing or sales, brand, support, employee etc. Every experience is ‘shapable’ and even though I am not totally in support of giving one person ownership of these experiences, there is a good intent behind it.
My twist to it is, making every single person who works within an organization responsible for the experiences they deliver both within and outside of the organization. Everyone’s objectives should include an element of delivering outstanding and pleasurable experiences. All other ideas, projects, tasks and objectives should pass through the ‘experience’ filter and should only be deemed successful if it delivers an outstanding experience to its stakeholders both in and outside the organization. This is mostly because everyone deserves a great experience both within and without. When employees experience pleasure, they pass that on to customers or clients they encounter. And when the idea of ‘shaping experiences’ is infused into training and every day decision making, everyone positions themselves to think from that frame of mind while they work on anything that impacts consumers.
Then at that point, the company could hire people strategically whose responsibilities revolve around User Experience, Customer/Client Experience and Service Design, with the intention of doing research, developing frameworks and methodologies that define exactly what a pleasurable or delightful experience means to their consumers and how to go about getting it right EVERY TIME. This does not mean every consumer or employee needs to be singing kumbaya all day everyday, as that is never possible (a lot can be said about this), but some serious thought and action needs to be in place to ensure the least intrusive and most pleasurable experience for everyone impacted or potentially impacted by every step that is taken related to the product or service. This only comes consciously; by design.
Can you get your consumers to be as excited as the child in the photo above every time they encounter your brand, product or service? You might be on the right track ;). I honestly feel like that every time I walk into an Apple Store.
As I mentioned earlier, I am by no means an expert and have only recently developed an interest in experience design. These are my personal opinions though; after reading a few books, blogs and speaking to a few people who have industry experience in this ball park. Agree? Disagree? Bullshit? Feel free to share. I’m open to learning more.