Broken train set

‘Welcome to Northern Fail’ read a sign greeting passengers at Manchester Piccadilly station this year.152 2018 was an annus horibilis for the rail industry, with train punctuality at a 12-year low due to weather, strikes and timetable chaos.153 Disgruntled and stranded commuters became a common sight on the evening news.

But the rail companies are by no means the only ones struggling with customer satisfaction. Across all sectors, organisations are coming under growing pressure from customers who are increasingly more demanding.

Although there is much talk about customer-centricity and putting the customer at the heart of the organisation, business leaders in the UK recognise they are still not hitting the mark. Just 21% give their own organisation a score of 9 or 10 out of 10 in consistently delivering high-quality customer service.154 The fiasco of the new rail timetable roll-out earlier this year, provides just one example of how not to do this!

Engaging emotionally

But putting the customer at the centre of a major business is no easy feat – for some organisations it will take a complete transformation of how they operate. For many it will mean an important mind shift – away from merely fulfilling the functional needs of consumers, and towards understanding their emotional needs also.

FTSE 500 bosses currently rate themselves highest in terms of meeting customers’ functional needs with 40% rating themselves effective – but only 25% rate themselves highly in terms of truly understanding their customers’ needs. Similarly, just 25% would give a high score for building an emotional connection with their customers, reflecting little change from 2016 155  This is problematic, as organisations need to be continually developing relationships with their customers to truly understand what is important to them, and in turn, need to be building this into their culture, strategy and processes. Consumers are more likely to come back to a brand they have an emotional connection with, and may even forgive them if they make a mistake.156

Ensuring engaging experiences

All this matters because personal experience has a greater influence than brand reputation on influencing customer behaviour – 50% citing recent experience vs 16% mentioning brand reputation.157 So a good (or bad) interaction with a customer can go a long way. However, what is good (or bad) has become more complicated. Customers now compare organisations across different sectors, as boundaries dissolve online. Businesses are now competing with the ‘best in show’, not just those in their own sector – my experience with my supermarket will impact how I feel about the service offered by my bank.

In addition, customers also want a seamless experience, no matter what platform they use to interact with a company. Online, telephone, webchat and in-person all need to align and offer a top level of service. Most of us (58%) expect consistent levels of service across both physical and digital channels.158

While it might be tempting to embrace artificial intelligence (AI) and other technological responses to the customer experience quandary, the key to getting this right is very often by investing in, valuing, and listening to our own frontline teams. In a world where emotion is key, this not only creates a better relationship with customers, but also provides a more honest representation of the customer pain points. If the employee experience is negative (i.e. driven by process rather than the customer), it will be very difficult for them to delight customers and deliver exceptional service. Instead, organisations need to empower staff to go outside of their comfort zone and deliver the great experiences that customers are demanding.

While fulfilling functional needs (such a train showing up when it is supposed to) is vital, it takes much more to create a really positive customer experience. If boardrooms across the UK started engaging emotionally with customers, and thinking what it really meant to have them at the heart of the business, there would be a lot fewer unhappy customers out there.