Customer experience

 Customer experience

MARKETING SEMINARS as well as mission statements enshrine the place of the customer in the corporate scheme of things. The customer is queen of the empire. She is always right. She needs to be not just pleased, but also delighted. Companies shrivel and die without her. Praises accorded to the abstract customer verge on idolatry.

Is the customer really the center of the corporate universe?

The rise of online shopping in the internet culture has eroded the compulsion (or even desire) for pampering the customer. E-commerce has left the servicing of customers to a program algorithm. (The voice on the other end may not even be human.) Now, you can buy anything in the net: airline tickets, hotel bookings, theatre seats, dates (not only the ones from trees), and books. The interaction between seller and buyer is a multiple-choice sequence of decisions that leads into a payment method and then actual delivery of the product or service.

It seems the only objective of the seller is to find the right customer. Targeted messaging from data mining seems the holy grail. Once the lifestyle grouping is determined, a granularly targeted message — “this is for you” — closes the circle in customer care. And artificial intelligence and robotic voices can handle the verbal hugs (Good choice, Sir) for the consumer’s benefit.

The whole search and completion of sale is tracked to provide information on a particular customer — you may also like grated cheese with that. This information is an asset that is even sold to other vendors.

The absence of face-to-face interaction in this sales model is becoming too common. (If you want to hear a real human voice with bad grammar, press 16.) The live interaction, whether on the phone with a “customer care attendant” or the live equivalent in a booth at the mall, is on the decline, along with the skills associated with that old-fashioned activity of making the customer feel wanted, if not loved.

On the other side of the live customer interface is a stressed-out salesperson, maybe a contractual hire from a service provider. She has undergone some basic training in the product features and is probably two pages ahead of the customer he is tasked to assist. On the demand side is a discontented, maybe even hostile, customer who feels he has paid for a lemon without any appetite for lemonade. Is it then unlikely that the conversation that ensues is not imbued with professionalism and civility? (Sir/Ma’am, I’m not aware of that product feature you are complaining about.)

In the more traditional fields of service provision, the treatment of the customer as a pest persists.

Are waitresses trained to avoid eye contact? In a busy restaurant, the customer who wants a glass of water, a menu, a person to take his order or present him his bill, and then to follow up his receipt and change can feel ignored. He tries to wave at a uniformed attendant and make eye contact to mime his needs (a tipping of the cupped hand for a glass of water). The waitress has her eyes focused elsewhere, up the ceiling to check on crawling insects that may fall on the soup tureen, the table assignment by the door, and maybe an expectant stare through the walls to await the apparition of a restaurant manager. (He hasn’t dropped by for a while.)

Little in management literature has been written about the right of the sales agent to be grouchy to customers. The protocol for a pleasant customer encounter needs to be spelled out.

The customer should know what she wants. If she can’t make up her mind or doesn’t understand the product and its limitations she should brush up on this first and study the manual. Otherwise, she will be taking up too much time at the counter as the line behind her gets longer.

Still, there are places that make the customer feel special. The regular patron feels special with her favorite table and the regular order she prefers. (The vinaigrette on the salad just needs to be sprinkled.)

The customer experience now seems to be limited to knowing who will buy… and how she will pay for it.

Tony Samson is chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda