Business leaders increasingly understand that direct experience of a brand is what really counts. Yet relatively few are delivering.
Technology companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Airbnb, Accenture Interactive’s Japan managing director Junichiro Kurokawa noted in a recent interview with Campaign Asia-Pacific, have managed to disrupt just about every sector, not just the companies their businesses compete directly with. That’s because their focus on user experience means people have come to expect the same level of usability and service from every brand they interact with.
Softer elements such as communications still have an important role to play in branding of course, especially for people who have yet to interact with a company. But while they “are still vital to a brand’s image, the experience … is in many ways even more important” when it comes to shaping how people think of the brand, says Tim Paciolla, a creative director at the consultancy Frog Design in Sydney. “When you look at the success of companies such as Apple, Uber or Airbnb, [it’s] largely based on the experience of using the products … the experience becomes the differentiator for the company.”
But user experience (UX) is itself evolving to be more than how a single product is used, Paciolla says. “Over the past couple of years user experience is being thought of at a systems level, taking into account the entire product portfolio, the various touchpoints or channels and even the internal systems that help the company deliver those products.”
The problem is that few companies are getting it right. From a global perspective, the digital experience brands offer is “generally pretty crappy still”, opines Rick Webb, author of the book Agency and COO of the application Timehop.
Bill McMurray, MD for Asia-Pacific and Japan at Qualtrics, a company specialising in experience management, points to a global study by Bain & Company which found that although 80 percent of CEOs think they are giving their customers a “superior” experience, only 8 percent of those customers agree.
Part of the issue is looking at brand components in isolation. Brands in sectors such as traditional automotive, household appliances and FMCG often focus on “playing not to lose rather than playing to win”, says Ian Lee, Paciolla’s counterpart at Frog in London. “The types of projects that these clients want to do typically involve a better user interface, packaging or a new skin, and rarely do we see [them] linking these efforts in a holistic way to the branded customer experience. These efforts don’t create much new value for the consumer but rather tick the boxes of getting a facelift product launched.”
Mobike (orange) and ofo (yellow) are setting new standards for customer experience.
For all the talk of ‘listening’ and ‘engaging’ with consumers in recent years, it’s clear that brands need to try harder. A recent Qualtrics survey of 1,700 consumers examining customer service in the financial, travel and retail sectors in Asia-Pacific indicated that 30 percent would abandon a brand immediately in the event of a major service failure. “This shows the direct link between great experiences and customer loyalty and poor experiences and disruption of loyalty,” McMurray says. “Hence businesses simply cannot afford to ignore customer feedback.”
To be fair, most major brands are probably not ignoring customer feedback entirely. The problem is that they are failing to act on it properly. Firstly, McMurray says, companies do not usually have a system in place that allows them to respond in real time — something he condemns as “unforgivable” in an age when consumers have been conditioned to expect instantaneous reactions. Worse, according to Qualtrics’ study, nearly 40 percent of customers believe their feedback simply doesn’t reach the relevant department.
Webb says the real problem is that the social media or service managers who customers typically interact with when giving feedback “aren’t empowered to fix anything”. Even though a company might have spent millions on its customer service front-end, the systems are often not integrated, he says, meaning giving feedback is essentially like “shouting into the ether”.
Part of the reason for this state of affairs is that brands that have not grown up in the digital era have tended to rely heavily on agencies to manage all customer interactions, when agencies still have limited expertise in anything that isn’t one-way messaging. “Digital-native brands that evolved without traditional agencies and did a lot in-house have generally fared better” when it comes to experience, Webb says. He reckons the only way forward is for brands to take full ownership of the experience they provide.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Lee says brands in markets such as China struggle to connect brand with technology, services and products. The first step is to bring those together and in particular align business and customer experience strategy, which Paciolla says is something clients are increasingly asking for help with. Having achieved that, they need to learn to use their customer data effectively. McMurray says businesses are “awash with operational data, which tells you what has happened”, but low on experience data, which can provide insights as to why. Having both data sets will help reduce the “experience gap”, he says.
So who is getting it right? There seem to be few standout examples among ‘legacy’ brands. Lee says brands like Airbnb and Uber set the standard for modern brand-building because they are built “first and foremost on the quality and design of their end-to-end customer experience” and offer a tangible experience. “That type of authentic brand-building is difficult with a legacy brand approach that focuses on aspirational messaging and expects consumers to follow,” he says.
It’s a bit different in markets like China. “On the one hand [Chinese companies] are playing catch-up in learning how brands should be built properly according to Western ideas,” he says. “But at the same time they have an open field because they aren’t burdened with a history of building brands in a particular way. The most successful homegrown Chinese brands understand this.”
Lee singles out Xiaomi (216 in this year’s ranking) for having built its brand through experiences and products. Again, a legacy could easily have stifled such innovation, he says. “That new approach to brand-building through customer experience made global audiences realise that something different and valuable was happening in Chinese brand-building.” Car- and bike-sharing services Didi, Mobike and Ofo are also creating “best-in-class experiences” for similar reasons, he adds.
Looking ahead, AI is set to play an important role in UX. But here, even the most technologically advanced companies have a lot to learn. Lee calls it “the dumb-AI phase”, and says the few companies that understand the technology, such as Google, Amazon and Uber, “are really only scratching the surface when it comes to making the customer experience natural, elegant and frictionless”.
That AI is currently “dumb” is not necessarily a bad thing, though. According to Lee, we should see it as “a positive early experimental phase for brave companies that aim to get better data and will allow them to pivot their AI innovations and resulting experiences accordingly”. Whoever gets there first will distinguish their brand in a way that has not been done before.
Tips for better brand experiences
Bill McMurray, MD, Asia-Pacific and Japan, Qualtrics
1. Timing is everything
The first thing is to understand when the best moment to capture feedback is so that you can learn to deliver great experiences that involve multiple interactions across the customer journey. Mapping the ‘moments that matter’ allows organisations to understand the unique paths their customers take and helps unify teams to work together to improve the overall experience. Businesses should also ask about the experience after the customer has been through the entire process so they can get a fuller picture of the customer’s perceptions.
2. Get the right feedback to make the best decisions
It’s important for businesses to ask for more than just whether the customer is satisfied or not. Going deeper with the questions, pulling out a customer’s expectations, drivers and perceptions, will help you learn how to do things better.
3. Prioritise closing the loop at scale
It is critical for brands to respond to individual customers as fast as possible. However, prioritising learning and closing the loop at scale can impact many customers at once. Building a stable, repeatable process for capturing customer feedback at every customer touch point and acting on it is foundational to good customer experience management. This preserves and deepens consumer trust, especially if the brand is able to identify problems that you can resolve for them.