Customer Experience: A Sustainable Business Differentiator

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1 Customer Experience: A Sustainable Business Differentiator Dr. Suresh. K. Chaddha 1 and Namita Bhandari 2 Abstract In today s time of hyper competition and overlapping product and service features, it has becoming extremely challenging for the brands to differentiate from the competitors brands. All the 4 Ps of the marketing along with the additional 3Ps of the service marketing can be easily emulated. So what could be the mantra of winning satisfied and loyal customers in the present scenario of diluting differentiators and falling switching costs. A new paradigm of customer experience is creating huge buzz across the industries to prove product or service supremacy. An experience which is memorable, engaging and emotionally uplifting can turn customers into advocates of a brand. Such take away experiences are surely a way to make a business sustainable in the world of innovative disruptions. So this paper discusses the concept of customer experience, the progress made in the field of customer experience, its relevance in the field of marketing, instances of right experiences becoming the winning tools of successful businesses, and future scope in the domain of customer experience. Key Words: Customer Experience; Service Marketing; Brands; Sustainable. 1. Introduction Customer today is truly the king; he is spoilt to the hilt with choices. For almost every product and service meant for consumption there is a deluge of brands. Moreover every brand claims to offer the best product and service features and the most competitive prices. But still there are only few brands or companies which rule the consumption turf; consumer goes back to them again and again. In spite of having almost similar features of the offerings of such preferred companies with those of competitors, such companies command more customer loyalty and affection. So what could be this differentiator? This difference could be the experience which a customer gathers while consuming various aspects of that product or service, experience which he gets throughout his consumption journey. But what creates an experience? Experience in literal terms means any event or happening which leaves some impression on the mind of the person who is getting affected by that event. Hence experiences leave some memories which can be used for future reference. The role of customer experience in marketing has gained huge importance as it has the potential of gaining customer loyalty and further creating strong brands through customer recommendations. 2. Customer Experience According to Carbone & Haeckel (1994), by experience we mean the take-away impression formed by people s encounters with products, services and businesses a perception produced when humans consolidate sensory information (p. 1). Customer experience is the customer s interpretation of his dealings with a brand at various touch-points which come across the consumption process (Frow & Payne 2007). How does he feel about the service 1 Professor, University Business School, Chandigarh 2 Research Scholar, University Business School, Chandigarh. Mobile:

2 provided by any business? What are his perceptions and feelings about the service quality based on his interactions with a business? The construct of customer experience as compared to customer satisfaction has a better power to explain customer behavior like loyalty, repurchase intentions and positive word of mouth (Klaus & Maklan 2012). Then various authors have concluded that these subjective responses are multidimensional (Gentile et al. 2007; Pullman & Gross 2004; Verhoef et al. 2009). These responses can effect various business outcomes like customer loyalty, recommendation and satisfaction, thus it is an area of interest to researchers as well as industry that how to get quality customer experience (Maklan & Klaus 2011 and Lemke et al. 2011). Further, emotional response is an area which has received special recognition as an important dimension to study customer experience. Actually beyond rational evaluations, emotions are embedded into the memory of a customer (Richins 1997). Infact a customer s behavior is very much influenced by the emotion based memories of a customer with a service e.g. a customer who has to refer a restaurant to his friend can share his own experience with it in some emotional adjective, like wonderful or sad or frustrating or disappointing, which would have arisen due to any service encounter may be ambience, food, processing time or staff or bill shock element or may be combination of many such factors. Further, these emotions generated through customer experiences are getting viral more easily with the advent of internet and social media. That is why businesses especially in service sector are differentiating and seeking attention of their customers by providing emotionally engaging customer experiences (Pullman & Gross 2004). More and more companies these days are endeavoring to manage customer experiences by providing a positive, memorable and distinguishable experience to their customers. Hence, it becomes necessary to identify that which service encounter has led to which form of emotional response/ reaction and further what has been the impact of such emotional response on some marketing outcome like customer recommendation. 3. Literature Review Reactions and feelings of a customer while consuming a service are widely gaining recognition as an important parameter of customer s evaluation of that service s quality. Holbrook and Hirschman (1982) through their study first recognized the importance of experiential aspect of consumption. They reported that it was important to understand the emotional and irrational dimension of customer experience, which can explain the customer s experience arising from various contact points between the company and customer. This study also emphasized the necessity to understand experiential aspects of consumer behavior beyond the existing rational aspects, as consumer processes information based on the experiential view which is further based on the hedonic, symbolic and esthetic features of consumption. The consumption experience aims to study feelings, fantasies and fun related to consumption. The study pioneered the relevance of customer responses to various stimuli which led to customer experiences and thus contributed in forming their attitude towards various services and products. Arnould & Price (1993) further explored area of hedonic experiences in context of White Water River rafting in Colorado were used on a longitudinal study conducted over a period of two years to find the meaning of this experience from customer s perspectives. Very robust quantitative methodology was used to study a rich qualitative data. The relationship 96

3 between customer s expectations and satisfaction was studied. The study revealed that experiences from the river rafting context were extraordinary, absorbing, valuing, enjoyable and there was some kind of newness attached, hence they were recalled after a long time also. So for better evaluation customer s perception about a certain service, experiential account was understood and further propositions for other consumption activities and services were also discussed. To evaluate customer experience authors focused on their narratives instead of comparing their expectations with their outcomes. The authors questioned the paradigm of confirmation (i.e., confirmation between consumed expectation and that of actual outcomes) being widely used in the consumer research as it assumes that first consumers always have clear expectations and second the satisfaction is always rated by comparing the actual outcomes with these expectations. Carbone & Haeckel (1994) discussed about the experience clues generated during the customer s encounter with any product or service and such clues act as important take-aways for future reference of customers. Such experience clues could be based on performance or context. The authors recommended deliberately designing and engineering customer experiences to create differentiations in today s competitive times. Such orchestrated clues could help in giving the desired customer experience which could become a big competitive advantage. As compared with other widely studied construct of services like service quality, the construct of customer experience is still in its nascent stage and at times there has been a notion that customer experience is of more relevance to entertainment-centric organizations only. But there are studies which suggest that irrespective of the nature of the service and product also, there will be some kind of experiences which customers will have, which can be positive, negative or indifferent Pine & Gilmore (1998) through their article on experiential economy in the HBR reignited the attention and interest of marketers in understanding the construct of customer experience by emphasizing that to gain attention of its customers a business needed to provide such experiences to customers which were engaging, robust, compelling and memorable. Also they emphasized the need of services to compete on the basis of experiences as with passage of time services are getting commoditized. Experiences provided by a company could be directly related to its revenue generating ability. For an experience to be called as successful, it s required that those should be memorable, different and should have the strength of being sustainable. Such experiences get promoted through strong recommendations and word of mouth. Schmitt (1999) very elaborately explained and understood that the customer experience engaged customer at different levels. Those rational, emotional, sensorial, physical and spiritual levels of customer experience had a profound effect on their behavior and attitude towards a brand. He proposed that in fact the consumers built up an image about a company or a service provider on the basis of the experiences they gather on consuming and being part of those services. The author emphasized the significance of desirable customer experience in determining the success of brands in the time of global competition. Schmitt further explained four peculiar characteristics of experiential marketing as: more focus on customer experience, holistic experience approach of consumption process, emotions as well as rationales both being important components of consumption and use of diverse research methodologies to understand consumer experience. This work further focused on the role of experience providers which could create a successful customer experience if they are managed in an integrated way, implemented with consistency and attention being paid to every detail of service. 97

4 Frow & Payne (2007) the authors tried to explain three components of experiencing a relationship: emotion, cognition and behavior, thus elaborating the affective, cognitive and behavioral aspects of relationship between service provider and customer have been elaborated. The paper outlined that how companies could achieve to provide perfect experience (one which leads to customers becoming brand advocates) to their target customers and that too at reasonable cost. 4. Some Inspiring Customer Experience Stories It is not that customer experience is an altogether new and out of this world phenomenon. There have been countless stories when brands have went out of their way to please their customers, have been able to strike right emotional chord with them and have presented them with such memorable experiences that they became natural ambassadors of such brands. As such there are no strict formulas to create customer experience; rather it s all about being thoughtful about your customers, by empathizing towards them, planning service gestures after stepping into their shoes. So to understand that what makes customer s experience with a company memorable and long lasting, here are some examples of incredible customer experiences which have created wow moments for customers. One such instance is of an American multi retail company Publix, where employees go an extra mile to bring smiles on the face of their customers. An instance of their thoughtfulness towards customers is when one of their employees helped an aged shopper in tying his shoe as he could not manage to do it himself. Such pro customer culture runs in the Publix and their employees. One reason could be that Publix is America s largest employee owned company (Ireland 2014). Therefore, even small things have the capability of delighting the customers and leaving them with pleasant experiences with a brand. Actually it is all about igniting the right emotions in the mind of customers which act as take-away, thus creating positive word of mouth and stay with them for long. Businesses which have managed to get deeper understanding of emotional aspects of their target market have been able to create great customer experience and deeper value for themselves. Few examples of businesses which have become successful because they were able to evoke right emotions in the mind of their customers are quoted in a book written by Shaw (2008) like, a very famous American toy shop Build-A-Bear which gives a room to its customers to create their own teddy bears by putting their own creativity and feelings in shape. The company works on fulfilling one need of its customers and that is how to bring more fun to them. And this fun and the memorable memories which customer gather by creating their own stuffed toys is the company s brand experience. Somewhat similar is the philosophy of Disney which endeavors to give all its guests (they don t call them customers) some of the most cherish-able memories of their lives. Similarly Zara a Spanish clothing brand of international repute gets one of the best repeat visits in the retail store sector because it has been able to create a feeling of anticipation in the mind of its loyal customers because of its ever changing stock of fashion clothes (Shaw 2008). Likewise, some unnoticeable actions of companies have the potential of creating negative experiences in the mind of customers, thus damaging customer relations. One such instance of creation of undesirable emotions is if in a bank the pens to be used by customers on the desk of relationship manager are attached with chains to their tables, it makes the 98

5 customer feel that he is not trusted by his bank (Shaw 2008). Another company which is known for its well groomed customer experience is IKEA, the famous Swedish furniture manufacturer. The company is known for its lavishly spread store exclusively meant for furniture, in every store they have variety of rooms designed with different themes with their furniture, customers can sit and feel the experience of those rooms. Then their every store has sumptuous eateries to keep kids and other co-shoppers busy, thus making visiting IKEA stores a complete family outing. Similar stories of well created experience is of the iconic coffee chain Starbucks, where customers not only go to have coffee, but also to get rich experience of the strong legacy of Starbucks, their well designed outlets, inviting coffee aroma, specially designed coffee machines and exclusively sourced coffee beans for that extra touch of experience. In a famous book by Underhill (1999) the author illustrated various instances where with a thoughtful attitude business can create memorable experiences for their customers and thus winning their loyalties. For instance, the book discussed that by providing a place where shoppers can lodge their heavy and cumbersome belongings like an overcoat, a feeling of ease is created in their mind along with the agility created as they would be less burdened, which would ultimately lead to more shopping; also placing few chairs in the shopping outlet could lead to store patronage as customers feel cared for and relaxed. Then the author exemplified that by engaging children accompanying their parents on say grocery shopping e.g., by providing toys to play; then by kids-proofing the store ( ensuring that the lay out and furniture is not harmful for the kids can generate a very positive and calm experience in the shopper s mind as their little ones are being taken care of. And with a calm mind they would shop better and more, which would make them less frustrated post shopping also. He even mentioned that a considerate seller would be empathetic towards the font size of printing on the packaging if its customer s belong to an age group where near vision eye sight could be a problem. Then he discussed that how waiting time at billing counters could make a customer feel that he is not important for the retailer in spite of having a great time in the store so far, thus spoiling the overall shopping experience. Also having an efficient billing system could mitigate a negative emotion of buying-remorse. In fact, the book outlined that shopping experience at a retail outlet starts getting generated right from the parking lot and lasts even beyond checking out stage and the right understanding of it could help a retailer win customer loyalty and patronage. 5. Future Research Opportunities Customer experience is gaining ground with a great speed in the domain of marketing. But what is required is that each business should try to explore that what clicks with their customers most, how they can provide memorable experiences to their customers and thus convert them into their brand advocates. Therefore, both industry and academia should work towards coming up with industry specific Customer Experience Journey Audits or Customer Experience Scales to understand that what their customers actually want. 6. Conclusion The customer service nowadays is not only meeting customer expectations; it is delighting them in the most unexpected manner. Memorable, emotionally engaging and delighting experiences not only bring long lasting loyalties, but also convert those customers into fans of the brand, thus becoming their natural brand ambassadors. 99

6 References Arnould, E.J. & Price, L.L., River magic: Extraordinary experience and the extended service encounter. Journal of Consumer Research, 20, Carbone, L.P., & Haeckel, S.H., Engineering customer experience, Marketing Management, 3(3), Frow, P & Payne, A, Towards the 'perfect' customer experience, Journal of Brand Management, 15(2), Gentile, C, Spiller, N, & Noci, G, How to sustain the customer experience: An overview of experience components that co-create value with the customer, European Management Journal, 25(5), Hoolbrook, MB & Hrischman, EC, The experiential aspect of consumption: The consumer fantasy, feelings and fun, Journal of Consumer Research, 9(2), Ireland, L., Inspiring Customer Experience Examples, viewed May 15th 2015, customerthink.com/4-inspiring-customer-experience-examples/ Klaus, P. & Maklan, S., EXQ: A multiple item scale for assessing service experience, Journal of Service Management, 23(1), Maklan, S. & Klaus, P., Customer experience: Are we measuring the right things? International Journal of Market Research, 53(6), Pine, B., & Gilmore, J., Welcome to the experience economy. Harvard Business Review, 76(4), Pullman, E.M. & Gross, A.M., Ability of experience design elements to elicit emotions and loyalty behaviors. Decision Sciences, 35(3), Richins, M.L., Measuring emotions in the consumption experience, Journal of Consumer Research, 24(2), Schmitt, B.H., Experiential marketing. New York: The Free Press. Shaw, C., The DNA of customer experience: How emotions drive value, New York: Palgrave, MacMillan. Underhill, P., Why we buy: The science of shopping, New York: Touchstone. Verhoef, P.C., Lemon, K.N., Parasuraman, A., Roggeveen, A., Tsiros, M., & Schlesinger, L.A., Customer experience creation, determinants, dynamics, and management strategies, Journal of Retailing, 85(1),

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