Before we can understand the faking of customer experience by brands, we actually need to define customer experience correctly...
Customer experience is not how you feel about the brand or company you are interacting with, but rather how you
feel after interacting with a brand or company.
It is the sum of all the highs and lows of the experience that lets you feel either good or bad about yourself after a specific interaction.
I recently started taking note of my feelings when interacting with various brands. I was surprised by the fact that many interactions actually had a definite psychosomatic effect on my well-being. When I had a good experience, where my expectations were not only met but also exceeded, magic happened. I was smiling more, felt energised, had harmonious interactions with other people, was less stressed and appreciated the small things in life.
On the other hand, when I had an experience with a brand where even the most basic hygiene factors were not even met, moments of misery followed. Feeling miserable would impact on my physical being as well. I would feel tired, screamed and shouted at everyone around me, would be irritable, and started doubting my self-worth and ability to make choices.
However, I experienced the worst emotional and physical effects when a brand interaction was faked. This usually occurred when brand promises were embedded by using marketing channels to impose subliminal-like messages to near-indoctrination proportions. These campaigns would hype me up to an unrealistic, elevated level of expectation. When my brand interactions then deviated in even the slightest way I would feel and behave like a victim of violent crime. Dirty, used and abused. At first I would believe it was my doing, I failed the brand promise. Then a period of denial followed, where I would tell myself that the experience never happened. These abusive brand experiences, however, always ended in anger.
The only option left to the consumer at this stage is separation. In my case I don't usually go quietly, but focus all my energies on destroying the source of my discomfort and shame.
Oh, how sweet is revenge on social media! In an era in which traditional marketing is widely regarded as dead and that the customer now owns the brand, social media mudslinging can have serious consequences. This is especially true for big brands with a huge online following.
In my opinion, customer experiences can be divided into distinct scenarios based on four subjective consumer brand perceptions:
1. Price point
This scenario is based solely on price point in relation to the perceived value returned on the customer's initial investment. This is best explained in terms of two examples.
In the first example, a consumer decides to buy a takeaway from a large international food franchise. He receives his order in the expected period of time and when he hits the park bench to have his lunch-break snack, finds the French fries to be dried out and cold, the lettuce limp and the burger slightly charred. Because of the perceived value of the food and the amount of effort that it will take to go back to the outlet to complain, the consumer will most likely eat the food and write the whole incident off as the result of a busy lunch-hour serving. Consequently, he will suffer little or no emotional distress and will most likely buy from the brand again.
In the second example, a client decides to take his partner to a fancy deli in an upmarket part of town. The menu items are prepared and served at a highly inflated premium. Let's assume the diner decides to order a burger and fries at a price point that is perceived to exceed the real value by a high margin. If the fries are dry, lettuce limp and the burger slightly charred in this scenario, the patron will suffer emotional distress. He is more likely to complain and as a result would feel embarrassment, guilt and shame. He will never return and will discourage friends and family from ever supporting the brand.
2. The "community" shop
In this scenario, I am referring to brands that manage to be perceived as brands that are not so much selling goods or delivering services, but rather subscriptions to a community or a way of life. Brand loyalty becomes more important than the perceived value or quality. Clients are more likely to promote these brands even more during periods of disappointment or discomfort, because they perceive their personal value, integrity and commitment to be put under the spotlight by their peers. They will rather ride it out than be ridiculed by their colleagues, family and friends for their bad brand choices.
3. BFA vs. BA service
The breath-of-fresh-air versus the bad-ass service assistant is one of the more peculiar scenarios, as the brand expectations are based on a single person in a single instant and not on the holistic brand culture. Let me explain by means of an example. Let's assume a client enters a brand's store and is served by an assistant. Three scenarios are possible:
3.1 The client has a bland, but average interaction. Brand loyalty will most likely not be affected as there are no highs or lows.
3.2 The client is met by a genuinely nice and helpful assistant who not only engages, but empowers the customer during the experience by creative improvisation and enforcement. Brand loyalty will most likely increase as a result of this high-peak moment of magic.
4 When a client is met by a rude, unhelpful, bad-ass assistant, the opposite will happen. Because of the misery and discomfort experienced by the customer, brand loyalty will plummet to an all-time low.
4. Bimbo Shotgun Approach
The "fake it till you make it" scenario is most concerning because a customer experience with one of these brands is likely to turn into an emotional disaster for the unsuspecting consumer. Here I am referring to the ever-increasing tendency of bigger brands with wide marketing reach to make brand promises that cannot be backed up by either organisational culture or the back office. These brands use prime advertising slots, clever marketing campaigns and social media hype to promote products and services on a scale where potential customers have
to listen. When done frequently and intensively enough, the potential client starts to believe. Faking it becomes so real that customers explain away the frequent lows and moments when their expectations were not met simply as a bad branch, bad manager or an assistant at a bad time of the month. For the unlucky few that wake up one morning and realise the screams of ecstasy are just too perfect and similar each and every time, there is only one option left ? separation.
But why is brand loyalty even important? While a company can fake brand promises it cannot fake the economic bottom line. According to Brand Keys' president, Robert Passikoff, brands are better able to identify customers' expectations in a marketplace where there is a constant struggle to create differentiation and engagement and address them via authentic emotional values will see tangible bottom-line results.
The hour is getting near and sooner rather than later, brands will have to face the simple truth that selling products and delivering services are no longer enough to weather the competitive economic storm. Brands will have no choice but to acknowledge the importance of consumer expectations and the effect it has on emotion-driven brand loyalty.
I leave you with a short checklist of things brands can do to improve customer loyalty:
- Be grateful and thank customers for doing business with your brand;
- Be there whenever a customer needs you;
- Only make brand promises you can keep;
- Ask customers for honest feedback;
- Constantly innovate around delivering great experiences and create moments of magic in your engagement with clients;
- Delight customers by being authentic and personal, and always
- Anticipate customer needs and innovate to exceed their expectations.