Customer Experience Meets Online Marketing at Brand Central Station

“Marketing” covers a broad range of activities that together represent how easy you can make it for people to do business with you. Customers need to discover your offering, learn about it, compare it, and form a desire for it that is strong enough to compel them to shell out hard-earned cash to acquire it.

A brand is not a name. A brand is not a positioning statement. It is not a marketing message, a jingle, or a logo. A brand is the culmination of all of the interactions that all the people in a marketplace have with the firm.“Customer Service” activities revolve around how easy you make it for people to buy and use your offerings. Once they’ve shelled out the cash for the product, can they figure out how to use it? Can you and do you help them?

“Customer Experience” is all about how your prospective and current customers perceive your company, based on the effort they had to expend accomplishing the above tasks. If the word “brand” pops into your head, you may go to the head of the class.

The sum total of an individual’s experiences with your company will color his perception of it and build a brand image in his mind. A brand is not a name. A brand is not a positioning statement. It is not a marketing message, a jingle, or a logo.

A brand is something that lives apart from what the company plans, because it is the culmination of all of the interactions that all the people in a marketplace have with the firm:

  • A person sees an ad and forms an impression.
  • She looks up information on the web, and her impression changes.
  • She calls the firm and talks to the receptionist, and her impression changes.
  • She is put on hold and hears the music and “Your call is important to us.”
  • She talks to a sales rep.
  • She waits for the materials to arrive.
  • She reads the materials.
  • She talks to her colleagues about the product.
  • She reads about the firm in the financial pages.
  • She reads product reviews.
  • She makes the purchase.
  • She sees and feels the product packing.
  • She tries to use the product.
  • She calls customer service.
  • She talks to her friends about her experience.

There are only a few touch points where a company can exercise any serious control over that brand-building series of customer interactions: the advertisement, the marketing materials, the packaging, the product itself, and the web.

When a prospective or current customer calls your firm, the receptionist may not be having a great day, and that fact may make itself heard across the phone line. Your sales rep may be more worried about a commission and a house payment than listening closely to a potential client. Once a product is launched and on the shelves, you can only hope for great product reviews.

To influence our customers’ opinions and impressions about our goods and services, we want to use the most consistent, trustworthy, high-impact means we can to build a brand. Since we can’t control our employees’ moods, a company’s website is one of the most powerful tools available.

Your website represents your company in a very visceral way. Like advertising, you can use colors, pictures, copy, voice, music, and more to communicate your desired brand. Many companies stop at this cosmetic level and overload their sites with animations, a practice that has given rise to a new addition to our common lexicon: Skip Intro.

Your website also paints a picture of whether your firm is open and generous with information, or reticent and secretive. It shows how willing you are to inform, how hard you are willing to work to educate, and how freehanded you are with information about your abilities and goals. But a much more subtle message than all of these is how well your website actually works.

Think about the last time you praised a company to a friend or associate. You
probably used words like, “professional,” “easy to work with,” “capable,” and “on the ball.” Wouldn’t we like all the firms we do business with to have those attributes? Are people who visit your website left with the impression that your firm is on the ball?

Most companies that bother to interview or survey site visitors often ask questions that don’t quite dig beneath the surface of customer experience. They ask questions such as:

  • Did you like the visual appearance and layout?
  • Did you like the content?
  • Did you like the style, tone and character of the site?

Questions about customers’ responses to site characteristics are valuable, to be sure, but they are missing the customer experience side of the equation: what is it like to use the site? Customer experience questions are more along these lines:

  • Why did you visit our site?
  • Did you find what you were after?
  • Did you run into any trouble?
  • Was it fast enough?
  • What did you like best?
  • What did you like least?
  • Are there any features you like on competitor sites?
  • What would you like to change on ours?
  • What one button would you add?

These are akin to asking a customer if they felt the company was easy to work with, professional, and on the ball.

Customer experience, the building of a brand image in the mind of the customer, is the culmination of all touch points, be they outbound corporate communications or a conversation over the backyard fence with a neighbor who just found a series of 404s on your site.

Because your website is so interactive, and because it is such a strong indicator of how much you devote to potential customers, it becomes one of the most important tools you can use to impress and delight customers and convince them that your firm is the most qualified and the most deserving of their business.

Your website is also the single most measurable means of communicating with the world. In my consulting work with large corporations, I have only discovered a few that understand the brand-building power of the web well enough to bother measuring their success there in a serious way. These few understand that there are quantitative ways to calculate the answers to questions like:

  • How good are we at attracting attention to our site?
  • How easy is it for people to find what they’re looking for?
  • How quickly are we improving the conversion process?
  • What is the value of adding additional content?
  • Want impact does online customer service have on lowering costs and increasing customer satisfaction?

Customer experience is no longer an entirely soft science.

The capacity to measure your customers’ experience on your site is not simple, nor is it inexpensive. But the power of assigning numerical values to customer experiences is being used by a handful of forward-thinking companies, and it will allow them to make the most of the web.

At Hewlett-Packard, for example, the team responsible for web metrics tracks what they call the “Seven Recipes”:

Optimize lead generation
Which attention-getting methods are bringing in the most—and the best—traffic to your website? You can get millions of people to show up by promising free money, but if they’re not qualified buyers, you’re wasting time and resources and giving your brand a black eye. HP tracks leads from the banner ad to the purchase page to make sure their ads are making sales, not just building traffic.

Tune your pages
Are your pages helping people find what they’re after or sending them away? HP measures the number of people who click through each page. They also measure how quickly pages load, and whether customers have good things to say when surveyed about specific pages, rethinking pages that fall below the average threshold.

Optimize navigation
How hard is it for a visitor to get from a landing page to a conversion (shopping cart) page? How many clicks? How much reading? Perhaps even more importantly, are people taking the path you laid out for them? Or, in their confusion, are they wandering through other pages to get there? Is there a lot of “pogo-sticking” going on, where people click back and forth endlessly from a main navigational page to various content pages?

Enhance search
Do people find what they’re looking for when they use your internal search engine? Does it point them to a press release about your product instead of the product home page? HP hardwires some product page links to specific search terms to improve findability.

Optimize merchandising
HP constantly watches what gets put into their shopping carts. Which items sell together? What’s the best way to notify a customer who is interested in Product A that they might also be interested in Product B?

Tune entry points
Landing pages are the bridge between your advertising and your persuasion pages. HP looks at click density maps of each landing page to see if the dispersion ratio is in line with the rest of the site. If people arrive at a landing page and click through (disperse) to different sorts of content than what you intended, your promotion is missing the mark.

Analyze sales funnel
Given a three-, four-, or ten-step process to find, choose, configure, and purchase something on your site, where are the trap doors that people fall through on their way to check out? Where do most people abandon the process?

Throughout their analyses, HP has a very straightforward methodology. They review the reported numbers, surmise the reasons for those numbers, decide what to change in order to affect those numbers, and then closely measure the results of those changes.

Can you measure whether your customers are impressed with your brand because they are having a good experience on your website? There’s no spreadsheet you can download that will answer all your questions. But we’re definitely making progress.

Jim Sterne is an internationally-known speaker and a consultant to Fortune 500 companies, with 20 years experience in sales and marketing, and the author of “Web Metrics: Proven Methods for Measuring Web Site Success.”

Posted in Discovery, Research, and Testing, Methods, Process and Methods | 6 Comments »

6 Comments

  • Derek R

    August 7, 2002 at 11:26 am

    >’Customer Experience’ is all about how your
    >prospective and current customers perceive your
    >company, based on the effort they had to expend

    This is a misleading statement. Sure ‘CE is all about how perceive,’ but ‘basing’ this on ‘effort expended’ tsk tsk on you. Sounds like usability to me.

    Furthermore, Customer Experience is not brand, nor is it brand ‘building,’ or cognition of brand, etc. Customer Experience is separate from brand like brand is separate from actual service. There is an ethnography of Experience you are ignoring, without which, everyone would be modeled the same.

    ‘Brand,’ for instance, as immaterial, has nothing to do with actual service. It floats above actual service as word-image-sensation — as you like it — an anchor (similar to how the word ‘hand’ floats above yours when you put it before you). It’s a disembodied route, path, to be sure. And as conception, always equally arbitrary (i.e. “stop at the first motel we pass”).

    You begin this way. And this is what you will come back to.

    >the power of assigning numerical values to customer experiences

    The Emperor’s New Clothes? You got to be kidding. Let me guess. Pick a number from 1 to 10… Sounds like parlour-tricks.

  • jack

    August 9, 2002 at 11:27 am

    hmmm?

  • JIm Sterne

    August 11, 2002 at 9:20 am

    “Expended effort” is not just usability – it also includes emotional effort. How many clicks does it take to complete a transaction is usability. How frustrated the customer gets is experience.

    As for the rest, I’m afraid I have to side with Jack.

  • Ron

    August 12, 2002 at 7:28 am

    I have no customer experience with Caterpillar Heavy Equipment but I have hiking boots with the “CAT” logo (because they fit best). How do you account for this marketing/branding strategy?

    Is this not what most people commonly think is successful “brand”? Or is this a really a successful “badge”? – Ron

  • Derek R

    August 12, 2002 at 9:08 am

    I would say, if you’re providing missionary-work for Caterpillar Heavy Equipment by endorsing their logo and product as a walking-billboard, you are an experienced customer of theirs already.

    The marketing-strategy here is like jam and tea. Your heavy boots and Caterpillar’s Equipment are complimentary products.

    So, for instance, even if you don’t have a CAT to play around with at home, you’ve got the boots, right? You’re halfway to Mexico.

  • JIm Sterne

    August 12, 2002 at 9:10 am

    Ahhh, but you *do* have a customer experience with Caterpilar: “They fit best”

    Will this mean you’re going to rush right out and buy a Skid Steer Loader or a Track Loader? No.

    But it does mean that they have another pair of shoes out there promoting their company.

    Does that mean somebody is going to see your shoes and rush right out to buy an Excavator or an Integrated Toolcarrier? No.

    But exposures to the logo, and good feelings about the brand (they fit best) are better than no exposure or negative feelings. Besides, they made a couple of bucks selling you those boots.

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