In June 2015 I wrote an article for the Tourism Society Journal entitled Customer Service: Britain's Tourism Iceberg, in which I reflected on the sad reality that, while Britain's image overseas then ranked three in the world as a "nation brand" (behind Germany and the USA), for "quality of welcome" we were limping in 13th place. As I wrote at the time, “Whilst London 2012 unsurprisingly boosted our ranking, we have now fallen back to where we were in those dark, pessimistic, pre-Olympics days.” I argued that our failure to provide a world-class welcome threatened our long-term competitiveness as a major tourism destination - hence, the iceberg analogy.
Since then of course, it almost goes without saying that the world has changed almost beyond recognition, and there were many more dark, pessimistic days to come; the various political, health, societal and climate crises and emergencies continue to reverberate. One thing that hasn’t changed hugely however is our relative positions as a country the world wants to visit, versus the welcome people can expect when they do: in 2020 we ranked second as a nation brand, behind only Germany, and 11th for quality of welcome.
I’ve held numerous leadership roles in tourism, hospitality and retail since 1987, and since 2004 I’ve made at least part of my living through developing and delivering strategies for culture and training to help organisations develop confident people with a passion to deliver a great customer experience. And in that time, I’ve seen far too many organisations insufficiently focused on concepts such as customer experience and customer service. It’s frequently the case that these terms are not fully understood, which is one reason why those same organisations aren’t serious enough about investing in their people - especially those at the front line, or those directly leading them.
Having worn out far too many brain cells over the years looking for the right words to communicate the value of customer experience management, I believe a great starting point is the statement by the father of the experience management movement, Lou Carbone, that “You cannot, not have an experience.” In other words, whether you like it or not, your customers are going to have an experience of your business: it is up to you how effectively that experience is managed. This matters because, according to a recent Forbes article, “Customers with excellent experiences are more likely to become brand ambassadors and have been found to spend 140% more on services than those who had poor brand experiences.”
For an old customer experience warhorse like me there are some reasons to be optimistic in 2021. Since last year we’ve seen profound changes in the way consumers both experience brands and what they expect from them. There’s clear evidence that customers are searching for businesses and organisations with clear and positive purpose:
A new global study reveals that consumers are now four to six times more likely to purchase from, and champion purpose-driven companies. Additionally, it seems clear that consumers will increasingly expect to be able to access comprehensive and consistent brand experiences, wherever they are and whenever they want. The extended lockdowns have also accelerated the availability and quality of what I call blended experiences: the ability to enjoy an authentic experience at home that previously would only have been available in person.
So why am I optimistic? In part because the concept of customer experience is now, undoubtedly, front of mind for every organisation, and because we’ve seen commendable ingenuity, creativity and commitment from so many businesses, whether delivering more engaging and authentic content online, or reimagining their physical experience with hygiene and social distancing built in, but not at the expense of human connection and emotion. Indeed, in many cases the focus on communicating with the customer and being sentient in relation to her needs and emotions, has been greatly enhanced as a result of the events of the past 15 months.
I’m also optimistic because, while there have clearly been far too many business closures and job losses, there has also been a hugely positive public response both to the frontline workers in our food retailers, who have worked throughout the crisis, and to the value of our cultural, leisure and hospitality sectors whose absences we have felt keenly during the various lockdowns.
This is why I suggest that, as a result of the pandemic, customer experience could be the lifeboat that carries our businesses away from crisis and towards a better future. It seems to me that all this upheaval represents a unique opportunity for organisations as they plan their recovery and longer-term strategies. With (probably) fewer employees serving (probably) fewer customers, and with many more interactions being digital and therefore, unseen, now is the time to focus on maximising every interaction with every customer.
Above all, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we are social beings, and we crave human interaction. For any business prepared to think strategically about its customers’ new perspectives and changed needs, to reimagine and plan its delivery using experience management techniques, and to invest as never before in the employees who face the customer (whether physically or digitally), there is the chance that we can create not only better, more productive business, but also stronger communities and – dare we to dream it – a better world.
Chief Navigation Officer, Stephen Spencer + Associates
Stephen’s business journey started in the High Street at age 15 and took him to the Tower of London, via Regent Street, and to Buckingham Palace by age 30. A combination of luck, curiosity and thinking differently enabled his contribution to the cultural retail revolution of the 1990s.
Since then Stephen has worked with, studied, learned from, and helped some of the brightest stars and most prestigious brands in the retail, leisure, and tourism sectors. His journey features milestones such as creating the Buckingham Palace Shop, launching London’s cable car, revitalising a confectionery-themed visitor attraction, and turning a national conservation charity inside-out, from property- to customer-focus.
At SS+A, the collaborative consulting and training organisation he founded in 2015, Stephen's role is to ensure that every customer and business journey meets client's expectations and requirements, and specifically supports assignments involving brand, marketing, customer experience, retail, and other income generation.
Stephen is a Trustee of Abbotsford, the former home of Sir Walter Scott, and now a five star-rated visitor attraction, and is also a visitor attractions quality assessor for Visit England. He keeps his optimism muscle in shape by supporting Tottenham Hotspur.
Thoughts from Ian Luxford, Learning and Engagement Specialist at The Motivation Agency
Experience is Everything
Stephen Spencer reminds us of the wise words of Lou Carbone: “You cannot, not have an experience.” Those who want to write this off as blindingly obvious or a truism would do well to try and explain why something so plainly true is so often ignored.
Equally, it’s worth observing the success of those organisations who take it onboard – in everything they do – for their people as well as their customers.
In the 1980s and 1990s, organisations were starting to come to terms with the idea that how they treated customers had something to do with their customers’ decisions to spend money with them.
It was common, when the concept of service or experience measurement was starting to take hold, to hear managers in retail saying “I can meet my volume targets or I can keep customers happy. Which do you want me to do?”
Over time, the importance of customer experience started to be understood, although as late as 1996 I was asked by the board of a very large retailer, “Why should we care what our customers think?”
As that view of the world started to fade (though sadly it is not yet extinct), another very constructive view started to gain momentum – the idea that employee satisfaction might also impact business success. We started to hear organisations acknowledging that “Happy staff = happy customers = happy profits”. (Some even noticed that John Spedan Lewis had seen this and acted on in the early part of the twentieth century).
So employee engagement also took off and there was a plethora of activity such as surveys, benefits portals, recognition programmes and lots more good things.
Again, some organisations have succeeded in seeing the wood for the trees. Employee experience and customer experience are inextricably connected, and not just because happy people are more motivated to do a good job for customers.
Employee experience has at its heart something far more fundamental than the benefits package. Employees come to work to do a job and most believe they are there to do a good one. Employee experience is about equipping and enabling people, removing the obstacles that make it hard to succeed and supporting them in doing what they need to do, for their employer and for their customers.
Many of the winners at the 2021 Employee Experience Awards were businesses that have succeeded in integrating employee and customer experience – making it easier for their people to make it better for customers.
It is perhaps not surprising that there is a strong relationship (71%) between the businesses that increased their investment and training and those that saw growth during the pandemic. Over time, we will see more evidence that investing people yields great results; when the focus is on people and customer experience in the same moment, the impact will be significant.