Recently, Mercedes-Benz President and CEO Steve Cannon stated, “Customer experience is the new marketing,” and his insight helps explain a new wave of optimism currently sweeping the world of brand experience and retail. There is a better way, and it will not only rescue retail’s fortunes, it will entirely reinvigorate them.
This opportunity not only applies to the popular categories where we traditionally love to shop, such as clothing, luxury goods or homewares stores, but it also applies to the retailers where consumers dread to venture. In fact, in those latter categories, it especially applies.
Consider tax preparers, network service providers, mail and shipping services, hardware stores and insurance companies. They’re all essential, and yet we avoid them as much as possible. Why is that? Because they force us to navigate the unfamiliar, make on-the-spot decisions with an embarrassing void of knowledge and trigger our latent fear of being ripped off.
To add to these particular retail experiences—or diminish them further—they tend to exist in categories that leave us empty-handed and slightly anxious: “I hope that package gets there”; “I hope my taxes were filed correctly”; or “I think I am now insured against most scenarios.” We walk away wondering what just happened and hoping for the best.
A similar angst applies at the auto retailer, too, and Steve Cannon knows it. This is a category overripe with the promise of a juicier way of operating, with new opportunities to entice and delight consumers.
Whether we’re purchasing a car (“Will I get taken? Is this the best car for my needs?”) or getting routine maintenance (“Do I really need to do everything they are recommending?”), or simply replacing a worn-out part (“Is this a quality replacement part or a cheap knock-off? Is the staff just getting me to buy what they are pushing this month?”), most of us walk nervously into these places, dressed in a cloak of anxiety.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are already many “consumer-confusing” categories out there that are way ahead in creating positive customer experiences. We can learn from them.
This tax prep company addresses customers’ fears (and their greed) head-on through two guarantees posted on the windows: 1) if they mess up your taxes, they will pay the penalties and clean up the mess and 2) you WILL get the biggest tax refund possible. The beauty of this approach is that in the time it takes customers to walk from their car to the entrance, they’ll inevitably read this messaging and enter the branch feeling like H&R Block is working for them, versus selling them a service.
Has your dishwasher started dumping water on the floor and now you need a replacement? No problem. For just such a trip, Home Depot created a welcoming kiosk, “The Appliance Finder.” It doesn’t require any sales associate involvement and allows customers to digitally navigate the retailer’s entire catalog and view informative content to narrow in on what is right for them, plus pay for and set up delivery of their selection. By providing an all-in-one solution center in the Appliance Finder, Home Depot has minimized the customer’s time spent dealing with an unexpected problem—and thereby increased their standing with them.
When a Lincoln owner’s car needs servicing, they don’t have to lift a finger. Their dealership will pick up their car at any location, leave them a suitable loaner vehicle and then return their car to them when the work is done. Time is saved and a hassle is dodged, at no extra cost.
So it really can be done. The customer experience can be finessed to give people exactly what they need, overcome any lingering doubts and fears, and transform shoppers into happy brand advocates. Here are three simple tips that can begin to change the way we think about these experiences:
- Diffuse “before the store”: Pre-communicate. Pre-connect. Fine-tune the out-of-store messaging (e.g., digital and social) so that when customers are walking in, they are comfortable within your walls and their experience is as satisfying as possible.
- Help them take control: Empower your customers to solve their problem. Invariably this means arming them with the resources they need to feel confident making the purchase. The more you take pushy salespeople out of this process, the more shoppers will feel in control of their choices, instead of feeling like something is being pushed on them that they don’t understand.
- Minimize the burden: If you eliminate or lessen the things that cause uneasiness for your customer, it is a double win—the customer is happier with the experience and feels that they are getting more value for their money.
- Communicate clearly: How are you sharing your customer experience before the person even enters the retail environment? As H&R Block shows, it’s about messaging the experience upfront before someone walks in the door—including what steps the retailer takes to put its experience forward. Then the retailer needs to execute on that promise and live up to it. It’s one thing to say you provide a positive customer experience, but you need to actually do it—or any potential goodwill you might have had when the customer walked in the door is now gone, and it will be significantly harder to have that person turn into a repeat visitor.
Success at retail is about getting the memorable moments right. Getting someone to buy your product/service is a short-term conversion, but having them remember that you made an undesirable circumstance a feel-good moment, thereby changing their mentality about your brand, is the ultimate conversion. Better customer experiences can achieve this. It’s essential that all retailers—especially those in the categories that most consumers find confusing and off-putting—make every part of a person’s retail visit an experience that is positive and helpful.
Matt O'Toole is a strategist based out of Momentum Chicago