New Report: What Customers Value Most in Their Experience

Customer service employees may be more important than ever.

A 2018 report from the consulting firm PwC surveyed 15,000 customers from 12 countries, including 4,000 from the U.S, to identify the qualities that customers value most in their experience. The results clearly indicate that having friendly, helpful employees available is critical—even as service interactions are increasingly automated.

There are major implications here as 43 percent of customers said they would pay a premium for a better experience. 

You can find proof of this in many places. Coffee is cheap, yet coffee shops are packed with customers willing to pay a premium each weekday morning. Airlines now bring in an estimated $47.2 billion in fees annually for upgrades such as extra legroom or earlier boarding. And movie theaters everywhere are upping prices in exchange for reclining seats that can be reserved in advance.

Here are some insights than can help you leverage your customer service team to get an edge on the competition. You can also read the full report here.

A smiling retail associate helps a customer in a clothing store.

Top Experience Drivers

There's a clear cluster of customer experience drivers that customers feel are worth paying a premium for:

Image source:  PwC

Image source: PwC

The top five are:

  1. Efficiency

  2. Convenience

  3. Friendly Service

  4. Knowledgeable Service

  5. Easy Payment

Notice these all seem pretty basic. There's nothing about the latest technology, hyper-personalization, or even socially-consciousness branding in the top five. Customers are telling us they value companies that are easy and enjoyable to do business with.

Better Access to Humans Is Needed

Despite the rise of automation and self-service, customers still crave a human connection:

  • 71 percent said employees have a significant impact on their experience.

  • 59 percent feel companies have lost touch with the human element.

  • 71 percent of Americans would rather interact with a human than a chatbot.

One challenge is it's often difficult to connect with a live person, as anyone who has found themselves repeatedly yelling "Human! Human!" into a phone can attest to. Self-service is often welcome, but it's a best practice to make a live person easily accessible.

Service Quality Trumps Advertising

In the U.S., 65 percent of survey respondents said their experience was more important than advertising when it comes to influencing their purchasing decision.

Three of the top four experience elements that send customers to the competition are directly related to interactions with employees:

  1. Bad employee attitudes

  2. Unfriendly service

  3. Untrusted company

  4. Unknowledgeable employees

Keep in mind your customers are increasingly likely to go online and rate your company's service—good or bad. Customer-centric businesses are able to leverage positive reputations on rating platforms such as Google My Business to drive even more customers to their doors.

Bonus Insight: Physical Locations Are Rising in Popularity

A separate PwC survey found a 22 percent increase from 2014 to 2018 in the percentage of customers who shop in physical stores at least weekly for items other than groceries. 

Online retailers such as Amazon, Bonobos, and Warby Parker have successfully opened brick and mortar locations in recent years to capitalize on this trend. CapitalOne is adding coffee shops to its bank branches. And this may be anecdotal, but that line at Costco doesn't seem to be getting any shorter!

Once again, experience is key.

I recently did a comparison of three drugstore chains near my home. The stores were all on different corners of the same intersection, carried many of the same products, and had similar prices.

Yet the experience at CVS was significantly better. Friendly employees were more readily available and visible signage along with an intuitive store layout made items easier to find. 

Take Action

Small details can make all the difference in a crowded market. 

This makes it critical to capture and analyze customer feedback. Customer-focused companies relentlessly identify and resolve pain points that aggravate customers. You can use this resource page to find help with your feedback program.

We also need our employees to create positive connections with customers. I know many customers service leaders who are struggling with consistency in this area, however, there are several solutions within easy reach:


How to Gain Big CX Insights from Small Details

My wife, Sally, and I really enjoy wine. 

It's fun to explore new wineries and share both bottles and experiences with friends. So we were a little excited when I found a winery in Napa Valley that was looking for "investors."

The deal was enticing. 

In exchange for investing a small amount of money into the winery, you would receive an estimated 6 percent annual return plus a few bonus perks such as free wine, wine discounts, and even business cards. The business cards were a huge perk since many Napa wineries offer benefits such as free tastings to people affiliated with the wine industry.

Naturally, we had two big questions before we invested.

  1. Was the wine any good?
  2. How was the customer experience?

To test both, I placed an order for two bottles. The process revealed a lot of clues about how the winery was managed.

Here's how that one experience told Sally and I all we needed to know.

Man placing a puzzle piece marked "investigate" into a puzzle.

The Purchase Experience

Texas was a key part of the winery's sales strategy. The state represents a growing market with a lot of wine enthusiasts, but has less competition than California. 

So I went to the websites of two of Texas's biggest wine retailers, Total Wine and Spec's, and searched for the wine. Total Wine was sold out while Spec's didn't have anything from the winery listed.

A lack of inventory can easily drive customers to a competitor. You can't sell what you don't have.

So I went back to the winery's website and tried to place an order. The online store was not integrated into the website, and it took a bit of navigating to place my order. The order confirmation email arrived quickly, but did not confirm an expected delivery date.

Warning signs:

  • Lack of inventory in key market
  • Poor e-commerce experience

 

Fulfillment Time

Amazon is the product delivery benchmark for many of us. You can get purchases delivered the next day, sometimes even the same day, seven days a week.

The wine industry is a little different. Most smaller wineries typically ship purchases twice per week. Shipping time from Napa to my home in San Diego is about two days, so I expected delivery to take up to a week.

Two weeks went by and the wine had not arrived. I also had not heard from the winery.

List of warning signs so far:

  • Lack of inventory in key market
  • Poor e-commerce experience
  • Long delivery time
  • Lack of proactive delivery notices

 

Transactional Service

I sent a follow-up email to the company to check the status of my order. This could be a good thing in a way, since it would be an opportunity to try out the winery's customer service.

The CFO, Kevin, quickly responded:

Email from winery CFO.

My first question was, "Why is the CFO answering customer service email?" This might not be too unusual in a small winery, but it didn't make much sense in a winery that was looking to woo investors so it could grow into a powerhouse.

The other red flag was Kevin promised that my wine would ship the next day. Why not today? It seemed my order hadn't been a big priority until I raised an issue.

The warning signs list grows:

  • Lack of inventory in key market
  • Poor e-commerce experience
  • Long delivery time
  • Lack of proactive delivery notices
  • The CFO is answering customer service emails
  • Website orders aren't a priority

 

Poor Leadership

The warning signs had added up, so it was time to cut bait on this investment idea. I replied to Kevin and put my cards on the table, explaining that I had ordered the wine as a trial run while considering an investment.

That investment clearly wasn't going to happen, so I asked him to cancel my order. He quickly responded again:

winery email 2.png

Kevin inexplicably copied two other people on the email, Brandon and Kathleen. I have no idea who they are, though presumably they were employees tasked with stopping my shipment and issuing a refund.

Here's a guess, based on my experience working with executives like this. Copying those people on the email was Kevin's way of giving them an assignment. It's both inappropriate (why include the customer?) and potentially unclear to the employees. 

Ten days passed and no refund. I emailed again to ask about the status. Kevin quickly replied to Brandon, copying me.

winery email 3.png

Whoa! Three problems here:

  • Who is Brandon?
  • Why is Kevin emailing him rather than replying to me?
  • It's Wednesday. Why will it take the CFO until Friday to process my refund?!

It was really further evidence of Kevin's poor leadership. He may have been frustrated with Brandon (who was copied on the last email) for not issuing the refund earlier. Or perhaps he thought he was being responsive by showing me that he had tasked this duty to Brandon. 

None of that mattered. The CFO should have been able to issue a refund immediately.

The big list of warning signs:

  • Lack of inventory in key market
  • Poor e-commerce experience
  • Long delivery time
  • Lack of proactive delivery notices
  • The CFO is answering customer service emails
  • Orders aren't a priority
  • Poor executive leadership

 

Epilogue

Friday came and went with no refund. It had now been 30 days since I had placed more order and more than two weeks since Kevin promised a refund "ASAP."

I wound up disputing the charge with my credit card company since Kevin, Brandon, or whoever else was working there couldn't seem to get it done. Which tells me the winery may have some cashflow issues in addition to it's many other dysfunctions. 

Sally and I were disappointed this investment idea didn't work out, but one test order told us this winery was probably going to struggle. You can learn a lot about a business when you view it from a customer's perspective.


Why Channel Switching Is a Good Thing

Channel switching gets a bad rap in customer service.

If you are not familiar with the term, it refers to situations where a customer starts an interaction with a company in one channel and the interaction moves to another channel.

The customer sometimes initiates this. For instance, a customer might email a company with a question and then call a day later when she does not get a response.

At other times, companies cause the channel switch. The classic example happens when a customer tweets at a company and the company replies saying, "Can you email your information to service@acme.com and we'll look into it?"

Both of these examples seem bad, and they are. But there are definitely times when channel switching is terrific. 

Customer using a smart phone to contact customer service.

A Good Channel Switching Example

I've become a fan of the ride sharing app, Lyft. 

Using Lyft requires a lot of channel switching, though I'd argue it enhances the experience. Here's an example from a recent business trip where I used Lyft to get from a client's office to the airport:

  1. App: I booked a ride on Lyft using the app and then tracked my driver.
  2. Text: Lyft texted to inform me my driver, Benjamin, was near.
  3. In-Person: This is the ride itself. Keep in mind in-person is a channel. 
  4. App: I used the app to give Benjamin a rating and a tip after I arrived.

This one experience used three channels (app, text, and in-person) and switched channels three times. What made it terrific was every channel switch was seamless and felt natural. 

The truth is we often seamlessly switch channels when interacting with companies. 

You might use OpenTable to book a restaurant reservation and then visit the restaurant in-person to dine. Or you might call a customer service department for assistance and the rep sends you a helpful follow-up email.

You probably don't give channel switching a second thought when it works well. 

 

Where Channel Switching Goes Wrong

Companies like Lyft succeed because they make channel switching seamless and natural. Many companies do not.

I recently decided to close an account with a local credit union. You would have thought I was requesting the most unusual transaction in history. Here's that experience:

  1. Website: searched for instructions or necessary forms (couldn't find any).
  2. Phone: Called for assistance. Was told to visit a branch.
  3. In-Person: Visited the branch to close the account. Was told it would take a day to process.
  4. Phone: Employee from branch made a follow-up call to verify account closed.

Like my Lyft experience, this credit union experience featured three channels (website, phone, and in-person) and three channel switches.

It was not a good experience because the channel switches felt forced and unnatural. It still doesn't make sense why I couldn't close my account online, given I could do just about everything else on the credit union's website.

The one positive part of the experience was the branch employee who made a follow-up call. She was technically switching channels, but that part was fine because it felt like a continuation of the conversation.

And that's the key. Good channel switching is seamless and natural. Bad channel switching just feels like the company doesn't have its act together.

 

Master the Moments of Truth

Jeannie Walters is the CEO of 360Connext. She's an expert in identifying and optimizing key moments in a customer's journey.

Walters suggests companies should think about a customer's real life rather than design touch points around a process. She gives a great example from retail clothing stores.

"Nordstrom and other retailers determined how customers like to order clothes online, but wanted the choice to return or exchange them at a store. Once these retailers saw the need for seamless channel switching, they were able to make returning via any channel easier. Now customers have the choice of returning by sending back with a pre-paid label, going to a store, or even calling a special phone line."

You can do something similar. 

  • Experience your products or service like a customer would.
  • Contact your customer service department, just like a customer might. 
  • Talk to real customers and gather their feedback.

The goal is to find pinch points that harm the experience and find a way to make them seamless and natural for your customers.


Lessons From The Overlook: Experience Your Customers' Experience

Note: Lessons from The Overlook is a monthly update on lessons learned from owning a vacation rental property in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. It's a hands-on opportunity to apply some of the techniques I advise my clients to use. You can find past updates here.

Guest experience was initially a blind spot at The Overlook.

When we bought the property last October, our property manager did a property walk-through with us and gave her assessment. That was helpful, but we didn't have a lot of data other than that.

How were we going to find out what our guests liked or disliked? Or how we could make their stay align with our customer service vision, Welcome to your mountain community retreat?

Most people would default to a guest survey. We did that (through our property manager), but we also used two techniques that are arguably more powerful in this situation: experience and observation.

Here's what we did and how you can use these concepts, too.

antlers.JPG

Experience Your Product or Service

The first thing we did when we bought The Overlook was spend a weekend.

The house was already a vacation rental and it was sold turnkey, which meant it came fully furnished. What we didn't know was whether those furnishings were adequate.

You can learn a lot when you experience your product or service the way a customer would. For example, it might be easy to miss a few burned out lightbulbs if you weren't relaxing at the dining table underneath your faux-antler chandelier.

So we tried to experience everything a guest would experience. We slept in each bedroom, used each bathroom, cooked in the kitchen, watched TV, and used the internet. We even brought our dog to see how comfortable she would be.

This experience allowed us to experience The Overlook the way a guest would experience it. We might not represent every guest, but we could still use empathetic insight to imagine what guests might like and what they probably wouldn't.

Then we made a list of everything we felt was sub-par and made improvements. We went back a few times over the next several weeks to make updates and complete some minor repairs. 

A few weeks later, we returned once again. This time we booked our stay through our property manager's website. We wanted to experience the entire reservation process and then see what it was like when The Overlook was prepped for guests.

It's amazing how many small things you can discover this way. For example, we noticed we often had to find creative ways to store leftovers after cooking a meal. We figured our guests would feel the same way, so we added some extra tupperware to the kitchen.

Lesson Learned: Try mystery shopping your own business so you can experience a product or service the way a customer would. You might notice opportunities for improvement from a whole new perspective.

 

Observe How Customers Use Your Product or Service

Another exercise we did was to visit The Overlook several times immediately after guests checked out.

Our timing was critical because our property manager inspects the property after each stay and then sends a cleaning crew in to clean the house so it's ready for the next guests.

Our goal was to see the cabin before the inspection. We wanted to see it exactly our our guests left it. In particular, we looked for four things:

  • What was dirty?
  • What was moved?
  • What was damaged?
  • What was missing?

This exercise gave us insight into how our guests used the cabin. Here are some examples:

We got clues about how guests used the kitchen by what was dirty and what had been moved from it's original location. This helped us better organize and stock the kitchen.

One particular vase was always moved from its original location. This signaled to us that it was in our guests' way. They were likely moving it to make more room for their stuff, so we just removed it completely.

Plates and glasses sometimes get damaged, too. Some guests will notify our property manager, but other guests will try to hide the damaged dish in a cupboard or fail to mention a broken glass. Looking for those items allows us to replace them.

Lesson Learned: Observe how your guests use your product or service. You'll almost certainly gain insight that you'd never get from a survey.

 

Conclusion

It's always good to have data from multiple sources. We look at our guest survey data and combine it with our experience and observation data. 

For instance, our guest observations tell us that the typical guest uses 75-100% of the bath towels. That's not surprising since we provide eight sets of towels, our max capacity is eight, and we tend to get a lot of groups that size.

Our survey revealed that guests would like even more towels because they often shower after a sweaty hike and then use the hot tub later in the evening. Using the same towel more than once in a day get leave it feeling a bit soggy.

We're working on that one now.