One Consumer Experience Blunder Can Be Costly

Brands that haven’t considered “customer experience” as a top priority for 2019 may want to have another look.  It may be that brands should start thinking of it as “consumer” experience.

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  1. First, in the digital age, where an allegation can circle the globe before the response can find the keyboard, the impact of failing to think “consumer-centric” can cost a brand dearly through an unintended bad “experience.” 

  2. Second, putting the consumer in the center of all thinking can help manage customer expectations when they occur. The problem is, the word “customer” can too easily conjure thoughts of transactions; that is, sales revenue.  This leads to the conclusion that customer experience is about the process of a transaction from initial attraction to the settlement of the sale, and maybe the service of the transaction later if something goes awry. 

At C[IQ] we argue that brands need to think “consumer” (rather than “customer”) and understand that “experiences” are interactions and touch points that anyone has with the brand, and not just within the context of a sale. 

So, let’s agree for purposes here that customer experience should be characterized as the “consumer experience.”  Another time I’ll share an emerging view that both characterizations (consumer and customer) may not be the best, if a brand truly wants to put consumers or customers at the center of their brand experience and business.  For this article, however, let’s make it all about the consumer.

Simply defined, consumer experience is an individual’s perception of a brand through any and all interactions.  This includes both active and passive points of contact—

  • from experiencing an advertisement;

  • to perusing a web site;

  • to walking through a store;

  • interacting with a store clerk; or

  • watching a promoter of the brand, product, or services

—you get the idea. 

Therefore, consumer experience is shaped by any and all interactions an individual has with a brand in the course of learning about, selecting, purchasing, and owning a product or service.

A consumer’s impressions and perceptions can change in an instant.  In the digital age, this has become significantly amplified.  For example,

  • a poor service experience;

  • an App update that loses a customer’s data;

  • a frustrating purchase experience; or

  • a (real or implied) promise unfulfilled

…can turn a brand fan into a vocal, unhappy, former consumer or worse: a brand detractor. 

You may believe your brand is delivering excellent experience; but your perception may not be the consumers’ reality.  What follows, is a case in point.

A Use Case of Unintended Consequence

I recently was chatting with a professional licensed sports physical therapist about the consumer experience cycle, and the subject of sports apparel and footwear brands arose.  The therapist shared their principle of remaining more or less brand neutral because these companies often underwrite and sponsor events where he would provide volunteer therapy services pre and post competition.

Two of the several global brands – let’s call them Brand Y and Brand Z – are the most common for whom he worked for at sponsored events.  That was, until he had a negative experience with Brand Y

From that point forward he (and subsequently others) lost interest in participating for the benefit of Brand Y’s events, and now restricts providing his talents to Brand Z’s events and others..

You see, like many sports therapists and related healthcare disciplines, he donates time to the major events to provide valuable and often necessary service to participating athletes.  A good portion of his motivation to do so is a passion for sports.  A far lesser reason is any potential marketing benefit he might receive.  That’s because its seldom the case that he or his clinic receives any promotional recognition for their presence and contributions.  Moreover, he unlikely to pick up new patients, as all of the competing athletes often come from all over the world, and already have their own therapists and healthcare providers where they reside.  So, the contribution of this volunteer work inures more to the sponsors of the events (such as a national or world championship or invitational ski race or track & field meet, figure skating or gymnastics meet, etc.).

On the other hand, these volunteer staff, especially the well established, and in some cases well-recognized healthcare professionals, are potential advocates of the Brand underwriting the event.  Their wearing the Brand’s products is nearly equivalent to promotional athletes.  I don’t want to over make this point. Obviously, while a healthcare provider provides services to hundreds of patients, that’s not the same as thousands or millions who may idolize or make role models out of the professional athletes promoting a brand. Such has been the successful strategy of major brands from the beginning. For instance, many basketball players revere players like Lebron James for Nike or Steph Curry for Under Armour

But, I digress. The point is, for the Brand underwriting a major event, there is surely value to making certain that those healthcare volunteers are cared for—that is, they have a great consumer experience—regardless of whether they’re a celebrity healthcare provider or not. And such is largely the case—until it isn’t

Here is how it typically works. The major sports apparel and footwear brands sponsoring events recognize all the healthcare professionals who work their event with a personalized “Thank You Bag” containing several products—sized to fit the recipient; either exclusive product or event branded products including shoes, T-shirts, warm-ups, commemorative jackets or the like.  The gesture is in appreciation for the donated time and the value it adds to the event for the athletes to have healthcare, medical, and wellness professionals on hand at the venue.  

The fact is, these free services are provided typically for eight to ten hour periods.  On average, a sports physical therapist charges a minimum of $75—$90 per hour for their services. Thus, a therapist volunteering on behalf of the Brand underwriting these events is donating $600 to $900 in services per day, not to mention the additional wear and tear on their body. Such events are typically held on weekends, which are also typically days of rest for therapists.

Unfortunately, recently one of the Brands, let’s say Brand Y, has reduced their “Thank You Bag” to an ill-fitting commodity T-shirt. And that is all. Meanwhile,  Brand Z continues to provide its personalized “Thank You Bag.” What’s more, Brand Z’s bag also includes a personalized hand written note of thanks and a guest pass to the company’s “Employee Store”, which affords the therapist an opportunity to purchase more of Brand Z’s product at a substantial “employee discount.” 

The volunteer healthcare professionals’ “consumer experience” catalyzes additional experiences—a likely reasonable quid pro quo for the amplification of a great consumer experience the therapist is likely to communicate to their patients, colleagues, family, etc. This is simply brand advocacy at its best.

Apparently, Brand Y failed to consider any of that, having reduced the give-away to a transaction analysis. 

Now, I want to be careful to not suggest that business considerations are irrelevant.  Not so. These appreciation bags can be a real cost element of underwriting the event—if all that is considered is the financial quotient. However, outside of any marking the apparel with the event’s logo, name, etc., this product give-away is at no-worse than the cost of the goods manufactured.  Regardless, we appreciate that financial considerations can play into the decision-making processes. 

What we’re arguing for is consideration of the impact on the consumer experience when making these decisions.

To be sure, even though these volunteers were not “customers” in the transactional sense, they are nevertheless “consumers” of the brand experience. 

Brand Y’s decision to substantially dilute the value of the services provided by the volunteer professionals had a clear impact on the therapist as consumer (and arguably as a customer later.

The impact has a “fan-out” affect; in other words, this substantially diminished consumer experience could lead (and in fact has in this case) to widespread sharing of how Brand Y chose to treat its volunteer healthcare professionals. That, in turn, caused further sharing—and their impressions of that experience has spread (fanned-out) exponentially.

But while the spread of the word can grow quickly, the impact is equally a concern. We call this amplification.  In other words, some people’s opinions carry more weight than others; their voice has a different volume of “amplification.” In this case for example, the let-down therapist…

  • works at a prestigious sports medicine clinic that treats close to a 1,000 patients a week;

  • teaches at a major state university;

  • provides services to a local major league professional sports team; and

  • has additional visibility and influence in media appearances. 

If we further add in the affects of digital social media, you quickly realize the potential impact reach of an unintended consumer experience. 

The bottom line is, this is likely to be a lot of people who will no longer see this highly visible healthcare provider wearing Brand Y’s products, and who could be left with a negative impression based on his experience. 

Our advice to all Brands is to make delivering consumer experience excellence a top priority across all consumer journeys and touch points.

In this case, no one in sports marketing at Brand Y likely gave a thought to the consumer experience of their volunteers. However, if the Brand had a consumer-centric mentality across all aspects of its operation, the potential impact of reducing the appreciation bag to a commodity T-shirt might have been rethought.

We believe 2019 is the year to think through a more consumer-centric attitude throughout all aspects of a brand’s operation—especially in light of social media’s impact on every thing. Last Fall we produced a white paper for a unique client (given our primary business) that invests in retail brands. This investment banker was interested in the role of customer experience in brand value; its importance in brand strategy and the investments required to increase its impact. Part of that research was recognizing how it clearly needs to be a top priority in 2019. The resulting paper is now publicly available.  That may be a good starting point, if I’ve piqued your interest in this nuanced topic.

While you’re thinking about this in light of brand strategy, I encourage you to consider the notion of “consumer experience,” and less the common model of “customer experience.”  Focusing on the traditional model of "customer experience” can lead to decisions about the brand experience in the context of just sales and service transactions. However, Brands need to consider all touch points with all existing or potential consumers of its goods and services and how to make each beneficiaries of the Brand’s promise—whether or not they’re actually making a purchase. This tuning of mindset is essential for brands in 2019. 

We’re here to help; may I encourage you to start here.

PJ