Social media and the Internet have changed the dynamics of selling in two ways: 1) products have become more commoditized, and 2) what customers say about us on the Web has become more influential than our own branding. The result is that we are shifting away from a success metric based on pure product attributes to one largely governed by the consumer experience. Why has this happened?
While many of us have a hard time thinking of our businesses as commodities, the fact is that most now are. Click-of-the-mouse access to choices with nearly identical specifications, delivery and guarantees abound to level the playing field on both price and convenience in nearly every category of goods or services (think of Zappos’ free return policy which has been copied by online shoe sellers across the Web.)
At the same time, dollars spent on traditional advertising and marketing are losing their punch. Through the portals of YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, personal blogs and instant messaging, the arbiter of preference is now what our customers—not what we, the sellers—are saying. These days, a viral video can wipe out a decade’s worth of marketing expenditure in a week. A grass roots Facebook campaign can propel an upstart ahead of icon standards. Tactics such as these can blindside an otherwise savvy and smart brand.
So, what’s next? The answer lies in a new rule that’s driving customer choice in most of our businesses. Emerging from my own experiences running eight turnarounds, and now, consulting to small and mid-tier businesses and as a private equity partner, I call it: Extreme Experience Positioning.
This new indicator is all about the relationships that businesses build with their customers on dimensions that may be connected only tangentially to the actual substance of what they sell. Simply put, Extreme Experience Positioning is: how much your customers like you versus their otherwise comparable options.
One of the earliest examples of Extreme Experience Positioning, though written off as a lucky coincidence at the time, is the story of Les Schwab tire stores in Portland, Oregon. “Doing the right thing since 1952,” has helped them grow to 400 stores.
Les had an unusual understanding about the role of humanity in the relationship between his business and the lives of his customers. That’s why his salespeople would sprint through the parking lot to greet every customer and escort them to the showroom. To make them feel special. To telegraph that they care about them, the business cares about them. To deliver Extreme Experience Positioning.
Selling at Les Schwab wasn’t just about the tires. It was about building special relationships with his customers. And Les knew that if he did that, it would ultimately serve the business further than any numerical metrics could in the short term.
At CARSTAR, a chain of over 250 automobile body shops across 26 states that I ran for five years, our surveys showed hardly any correlation between customer satisfaction and the quality of our repairs, which did not come as a surprise to us. Rather, customer satisfaction and the referrals they generated centered overwhelmingly on whether we had been responsive to them in a time of need. We turned that insight into a company-wide culture, captured in the tag line: Relax, we’ll take it from here.
Today, most of us could improve our businesses by taking a tip from Les Schwab or CARSTAR. Here are a few tips.
Surprise every customer with something unexpected
This should be something that telegraphs your caring for them and shows that they are important to you as human beings, not just as transactions. Don’t just give something away, do something extraordinary for them. It makes them feel better about themselves and this good feeling will transfer to your business. Tip: Offer to carry their purchases to the car, or call later to ensure delivery and satisfaction. Don’t ask them to fill out a survey.
Start at the top
As an owner, you need to set the example. Not only with your customers, but also with your employees. Tip: Work a sales counter every month for a day and demonstrate Extreme Experience Positioning. Tales of Southwest Airlines' Herb Kelleher riding his own planes to talk with customers and work alongside baggage handlers and flight attendants exemplify this practice.
Once you’ve set the tone, encourage all of your employees to experiment on their own, within clear boundaries you set, to find their own Extreme Experience Positioning. Then, recognize them for their efforts. Tip: Hold a monthly, all-hands “Extreme Experience” brainstorm or webinar in which you listen to your employees’ ideas, recognize the best and hold them up as best practices for your company.
Spread the extreme positioning love
Ask customers who have commented positively about their experiences if you can feature their stories. Tip: Add customer stories with their photos to your website and Facebook page (they’ll love it and share with their “friends”).
Once you’ve set a few practices in motion, you can then look at your numbers in a new light to track your effectiveness. Tip: Begin recording the percentage of customer touches that convert into initial transactions and repeat sales, then correlate the results with patterns of customer interaction exhibited during the same time frame (see if you notice some trends over time when you amp up the Extreme Experience Positioning).
Do these simple things and you’ll be measuring success based on your customers’ experiences, which will ultimately lead to greater sales and satisfaction in today’s marketplace.
OPEN Cardmember Dick Cross is a partner in Alston Capital Partners, originator of the Mid-Tier Presidents Course Harvard GSD's Executive Program and the author of Just Run It! to be released in April 2012.
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