Experiences are critical

March 5, 2012 § 2 Comments

This is another article that I wrote that appeared in the Sunday Star Times in Feb 2012. 

Can you remember the last time you raved about a company and recommended it to your friends? I would hasten to guess that it was not the product features that inspired your admiration, but the service or experience you received which evoked an emotion so strong that you had to tell someone about it.

We all love to be treated a “little bit special” occasionally.  Call it what you want – a basic human need or an expectation we deserve overindulged lives – but evoking positive emotions and providing memorable experiences for customers is critically important for all businesses in 2012. 

Fuelling this trend is the increasing powerful influencer effect of social media; you only have to bear in mind the massive numbers  of Facebook users and the increasing reach of Twitter into business and personal lives.  The result is that more and more people will seek out social references and opinion before buying and it’s more likely that these references will be about the experience rather than the outcome or product features.  This is where companies need to differentiate and it needs to become a focus of their innovation.

This is particularly true when product features are broadly comparable, meaning the principle differentiator for many businesses will often be the experience its consumers had when they last engaged. The old adage of only being as good as your last performance will have more meaning in the future.

One of the key principles of design thinking is developing empathy for the human experience; some call this human centred design, where you gain insights by deeply understanding the human experience to identify latent needs, and use this as the fertile ground for innovation. 

Some of the world’s most companies understand this principle very well.  Last year, during a CEO study tour to Silicon Valley organised by Better By Design, it was clear that leading innovative companies spend considerable time and effort creating great experiences for both customers and employees.

Apple is great example of understanding what it takes to provide memorable experiences to differentiate way beyond its product features. It is legendary in ensuring the process of visiting its web site, opening one of its products or visiting its retail stores are met with the consistency and delight.  And it’s in its retail stores that experiences are taken to a new level as Apple challenges the role of retail experiences in a world that will inevitably become more online and less personal. 

After studying high-end hotel chains and how they engaged with customers, Apple has reframed the role of its retail stores and now views them as being in the hospitality game: sales staff provide customers with personal training and its Genius Bars (aka technical support) are there to “mend relationships” rather than fix technology. The retail store is a critical link in the Apple experience and rather than move customers further online, it has transformed the role of stores to provide another opportunity to delight and build deeper loyalty. 

Building loyalty for your business and brand through memorable experiences applies equally to your employees, a fact often overlooked by many organisations.  We know that an organisation’s  people are the most important link in business, so why don’t we ensure that their experience is worthy of a rave or a “like” in social media.

Kaiser Permanente, a large US healthcare provider based in Oakland, learnt that there are real benefits in understanding its employee experiences.  It undertook a project with innovation consultants IDEO to improve the nursing change-over process to ensure it was efficient and ensured critical patient information was communicated. Through a process of observing and understanding how the change-over experience felt for patients and nurses, Kaiser was able to identify a range of innovations that not only optimised the process for staff but also provided a system that meant the patient felt less isolated. Ultimately its success was only possible by having empathy for the human experience of all parties involved.

As we move further into a digital age, what will differentiate businesses are the experiences they provide customers and their people, and all organisations need to be more attuned to this. When I was in the US last year, I was fascinated to see a close connection in how the Stanford D.School creates learning environments for its students and how leading Silicon Valley companies are creating similar workspaces, which seemed to provide a logical progression for how students learn and work.  This made me question whether we are doing enough to understand how younger people are being educated and translating this in to a similar experience at work to get the best out of them.

In the long term businesses cannot rely on price as a differentiator; being able to stand out in a crowded marketplace and build brand loyalty will become more reliant on their customers’ feelings rather than product features.   So from an innovation point of view, it’s time to focus on your experience culture, and use this as a contributor to understanding where innovation can play a role in the overall success of your business.

 

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