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All too often new corporate trends like the “customer experience” get organizations fired up to improve their interactions and engagements with customers.  But the customer experience is real – and a lack of leadership and strategy can lead to mismatched expectations and lack of consistency in the brand value delivered.

Case in point: I recently began using a new phone conferencing service with a great user interface. It tells me exactly who is on the conference call and when they joined. I can mute callers and it even provides a meeting summary of who talked the most. It all sounded good – until last week. I had an Business Strategy - Customer Experienceimportant business call with three attendees. We all dialed in to the conferencing number – but none of us were able to connect in to the conference. It was a comical disaster as we frantically went back and forth on e-mail trying to figure out what to do. We finally resorted to a three way call on cell phones and lost 15 minutes of our 30 minute meeting – yikes!

This is a classic example of value being delivered in areas that appear to delight customers – but failing miserably in the basics of service delivery of the customer experience.

I’m continually finding that organizations don’t have a game plan or strategy in place to execute on the customer experience. Without one, they fall prey to the latest technology trend and place bets on the wrong ideas. Last year everyone needed a Facebook page – I know a landscaper that actively recruited and accumulated over 800 Facebook “likes” – but received no solid business benefit. This year everyone is building a mobile app. Sound familiar?

The customer experience is in essence the delivery of the company strategy as interpreted by customers’ perceptions.  The right customer experience strategy is aligned to the business strategy. When communicated internally, it sets expectations and delivers a consistent customer experience that differentiates and positions against the competition. Employees, functional groups, suppliers and partners must know what your brand stands for so they can deliver to expectations. It forces everyone to live up to your own brand promise.

In the customer experience, I’ve found most companies struggle with the strategic decision to be the high-touch/high-value provider vs. low-cost/high efficient vendor. Many companies want to have the best service at the lowest price – but it becomes confusing in an organization to deliver to those conflicting messages. Here’s how two companies (Kohl’s and VonMaur) in the same industry (retail) approach their customer experience. Both have good customer experiences – but are very different.

At VonMaur, a high-end retailer, you’ll get a blue Nike Tech Polo for $65. In the physical store, you’ll find the ratio of associates to customers to be very high, a high touch model. Associates will help you mix and match outfits and select the perfect accessories. They’ll personally ring up your order, box and gift wrap your package. The VonMaur on-line store highlights the latest fashions and exclusive styles you won’t find anywhere else. On-line, you can super zoom on fabrics and use a really cool app to assemble your outfit so you can see different pieces together. They even have free shipping year round.

At Kohl’s, a cost-conscience price shopping retailer, you’ll get a blue Croft and Barrow Polo for $9.99. The customer experience is much different than VonMaur – but still satisfying to their target customers.

With fewer associates for each customer on the floor at Kohl’s, you’ll find lots of efficiencies built into the operations. Electronic signage makes it easy to change pricing and offer discounts on nearly every item. They have kiosks throughout the store to check pricing and find your size at another location. From the kiosk you can order and direct ship if the size you need isn’t in the store. The in-store check-out experience is like an amusement park roller-coaster line – but fast and friendly – with more discounts offered as you check out with a Kohl’s card or us Kohl’s cash. The on-line store is straight-forward and simple to navigate – but focuses more on the low prices and end-of-season discounts.

Kohl’s and VonMaur target different customer segments and the persona’s of their customer base is much different. But they’ve each developed solid customer experiences that align to their business strategies, targeted customers and value proposition. They are both very successful businesses and lead the retail industry in many financial and operational categories.

But what happens if your customer experience isn’t aligned with your business strategy? Imagine a Kohl’s custom in-store app that allows you to mix and match styles delivered through Wi-Fi. While it might sound like fun – it would only leave customers wondering if the costs of that solution were baked into the merchandise pricing.

The alignment of the business strategy with the intended customer experience is critical to the design, delivery and ultimately your measures of success. Employees, functional groups, suppliers and partners must know the strategy and intended customer experience you stand for so they can deliver to expectations. Those that don’t align strategy and expectations end up with misalignment of value, and confused or irate customers.

I’m a proponent to begin defining the customer experience with customer and the business strategy in mind.  By focusing on must-win target markets with your differentiators you can define the customer experience that will position your company ahead of competitors. Communicating the strategy and intended experience internally and with partners will align your employees and supplier ecosystem to deliver your brand promise with a deliberate customer experience and achieve your business goals.

Rob Urbanowicz

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