Creating Great Customer Experiences

In The Ten Principles Behind Great Customer Experiences, Matt Watkinson provides a very practical guide to customer experience design and management, backed with a range of examples from different industries (mostly UK based). I particularly like the way that the author focuses on the ‘qualitative’ aspects of experience, including the sensory and psychological elements, arguing that these cannot be measured quantitatively through standard metrics. As he puts it, “it’s not what the features and functions of the product or service allow us to do, it’s how it makes us feel”. He also focuses on ‘individuals’ rather than ‘customers’ as many significant experiences with a business are likely to happen before someone is a customer.

Even more importantly, Matt Watkinson argues strongly that every interaction with a business is important in shaping perceptions, and not just those directly related to using a service or product. This means that prospective, new, loyal and lapsed customers should all be treated with consistent behaviours which match business vision.

This is a great read for anyone involved in customer experience and design, so let me highlight five of the principles that Matt Watkinson discusses, which capture many of the key messages from the book.

Great customer experiences strongly reflect the customer’s identity

Experiences that resonate with out own personal values and reinforce our self image make us feel good about a decision, building stronger emotional connections. And, of course, the starting point for creating a great experience should always be to understand what people need (or, rather, what people want; their ‘jobs to be done’). If consumption is driven by ‘badge’ value (the ‘sign’ value as Baudrillard and others have written), then the economic value of any experience will reflect its badge value (what it can say about the consumer). Watkinson argues that modern society is making all of us focus more and more aware of the sign value of everything, and therefore what we like, rather than what we want (becoming more other-directed in the language of David Reisman).

He uses this analogy to talk about how businesses are becoming more other-directed too, obsessed with market intelligence, customer research and competitor analysis and showing typical anxieties over finding the right strategy to gain approval from customers. This section of the book particularly resonated with me as, by contrast, all the companies that are highly admired (by myself and others) are generally very inner-directed, with a clear set of values, sense of purpose and strong integrity. He uses banks and telcos as examples of industries where brands have no sense of purpose or identity and therefore no reason for choosing one brand over another.

His advice to brands, which is good general advice for building strategy from customer segments, is to focus on three questions:

  1. What functional value (‘jobs to be done’) does the customer want from me?
  2. What budget or willingness to pay does the customer have?
  3. What does the customer want the brand to signify about themselves?

With the growth of customisation, especially as 3D printing becomes more widely available, many brands can have the luxury of building a community of customers with shared beliefs and the ability to customise products for unique individuals (as in Nike ID). However, brands need to watch that they don’t lose focus, as it is all too easy to create product and service lines that do not solve a specific and unique consumer ‘job’ that is not addressed by other variants

Great customer experiences leave nothing to chance

Watkinson argues that every customer interaction should be carefully considered, planned and designed, with no detail too small to consider. He quotes Dieter Rams, “Good design is thorough down to the last detail. Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.”

The first part of considering customer interactions is to map the customer journey, For example, in order to fly from A to B, the following steps (and interactions) are all important:

  • Plan the trip
  • Search for the best fare
  • Buy a ticket
  • Pack
  • Get to the airport
  • Check in
  • Clear security
  • Wait in departures
  • Go to the gate
  • Board the plane
  • Fly to the destination
  • Disembark
  • Pass immigration
  • Collect luggage
  • Meet friends at arrivals
  • Leave airport
  • Arrive at final destination

What influence could an airline brand have at each of these stages in ensuring a better customer experience? More generally, there are four key stages in any brand experience: discover the brand, shop, use the brand, and after-sales support. The book has a detailed analysis of a supermarket shopping experience, identifying a number of areas where customer experience can be improved. The key is to look more broadly than the very narrow window of direct interaction, and understand where a particular journey begins and ends for a customer. This can then be used to develop ideas for how a brand can improve the experience across a much larger range of touchpoints.

Great customer experiences set and then meet expectations

As Matt Watkinson quotes, and Barry Schwartz has written, “Happiness equals reality minus expectations”. An important part of experience management is the setting of expectations.

The main focus of this chapter of the book is on setting and meeting of expectations (not exceeding). In fact, Watkinson argues that businesses should be cautious about exceeding expectations, and in fact regularly exceeding expectations just recalibrates expectations and sets up future problems. In fact, the best strategy is to consistently meet expectations and (very) occasionally surprise customers, as demonstrated in a number of behavioural economics experiments.

The author uses the example of Pret A Manger, who very infrequently decide to give a customer free coffee (not regularly enough for this to be expected). On a larger scale Ritz Carlton gives employees a budget both to fix customer problems and provide occasional ‘delightful’ experiences. This is an optimal strategy – the brain does like surprises, which have a very positive effect, but most likes predictability.

Great customer experiences are effortless and stress free

People want simplicity, and experiences that demand time and energy are always likely to be replaced by those that are more effortless.

Less is always more. Continually adding features to products and services often reduces satisfaction as it makes it more expensive, slower and more difficult to use. Good designers always ask themselves “what is not essential in this design?”. Always go back to the ‘jobs to be done’ and look for ways in which the jobs can be simplified:

  • Can we do this on behalf of the consumer?
  • Can we remove any duplications of task?
  • Can we combine any tasks?
  • Can we automate tasks so the customer doesn’t have to do them?

The book uses the example of First Direct, who have a team that helps customer with all the tasks associated with switching accounts from one bank to another. I’m also reminded of those Governments (including Singapore) who have tried to simplify tax filing, for example by taking previous years information and taking this as a starting point requiring only changes of circumstance to be entered rather than all the information.

Barry Schwartz has written about the importance of limiting the number of choices to make decision making easier and less stressful. For example, Apple have one design of phone, and Nokia have more than 20 models (with a naming system that does not help the customer to work out the specific jobs that each model is doing). The same could be said of many technology categories and brands, that focus on what they can make rather than on what jobs customers are trying to get done.

Wait times are another area of customer stress, where resources can help but also better designing and sequencing of tasks, providing information on waiting times, and providing distractions while waiting. Customers are most stressed when they are confused or lack information what is happening, and these are easy things to fix.

Great customer experiences indulge the senses

Great customer experiences depend on engaging a customer’s senses (as we have written in many articles) and Matt Watkinson acknowledge’s this, quoting Steve Jobs, “We made the buttons on the screen look so good you’ll want to lick them”. The more senses that can be engaged (with consistent messages) the greater the impact of the experience.

Matt Watkinson uses The Fat Duck and Tonyi&Guy as examples of building multi-sensory experiences. Hestor Blumenthal, the ehef and owner of The Fat Duck, has worked with scientists and psychologists to build great meal experiences: “Of course I want to create food that is delicious, but this depends on so much more than simply what’s going on in the mouth – context, history, nostalgia, emotion, memory and the interplay of sight, smell, sound and taste all play an important part in our appreciation and enjoyment of food”. And not forgetting touch too!

He is famous for innovative dishes such as a bacon and egg ice cream, as well as playing music (through headphones) and using dry ice to disperse aromas to diners, leading to the accolade of Best Restaurant in the World.

Similarly Toni&Guy have developed an experience that goes far beyond just a haircut, with music, video, drinks and a rich customer experience.

Helping the customer to take control

Control is important to everyone. Choices give us a feeling of control, but too much choice can overwhelm and confuse. Brands need to strike a balance by being accommodating and flexible to individual needs, but also creating simple and easy to use experiences.

In a later chapter, Matt Watkinson links many emotions experienced by customers back to his ten design principles. For example, feeling in control can lead to pride, but a loss of control can lead to anger. Sensory pleasure can lead to delight, but if expectations of an experience are not met then we may experience anger, disappointment or regret.

The best way to ensure that your customer experience results in positive emotions is to follow the principles in this book. Here are my top five:

  1. Reflect your customer’s identity
  2. Leave nothing to chance
  3. Set and meet expectations
  4. Provide an effortless and stress free experience
  5. Indulge the senses


The Ten Principles Behind Great Customer Experiences by Matt Watkinson

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

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