Crafting a New User Experience

TRAVERSE CITY – On a recent October day in Boston, more than 180 professionals gathered to discuss a concept that is both cutting edge and as old as commerce itself: The Customer Experience, or "CX."

Nancy Flowers, vice president of client experience at TC's Hagerty Insurance, attended this first annual convention of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA), a brand new organization that has grown to 900 professionals in less than a year.

"The 'vibe' was extremely enthusiastic," says Flowers. "Everyone shared an excitement of where CX is headed as a profession and agreed it is some of the most interesting work we've ever done."

The customer experience is generally considered to be the full sweep of all interactions and experiences that a customer has with a provider of goods and services. It includes face-to-face exchanges with employees as well as contacts on the phone, as well as online experiences.

Some of the recent surge of interest in this field has come about because of Frederick Reichheld, the Bain & Company consultant who showed that "80 percent of companies believe they deliver a superior customer experience, but only eight percent of their customers agree."

Many Traverse City area companies have realized that a strategic focus on CX is not only a smart way to stand out from competitors; it can also be the linchpin of core business strategy.

Here are three very different Northern Michigan businesses that have adopted unique approaches to enhancing the customer experience… and seen dramatic results as a consequence:

Hagerty Kicks It Up a Notch

The classic vehicle insurance business has become increasingly competitive and increasingly complex in recent years, with a growing number of companies offering coverage options using growing number of information channels – the Web, Facebook and online communities – to reach prospective customers.

In response to this growing complexity, the company has made a number of investments into CX, including putting Flowers in charge of a team focused on continuous improvement of the Hagerty client experience.

Hagerty has a strong culture of service that extends back to the earliest days of the company. For this reason, Flowers says that the leadership team's decision to invest in a more formal approach to managing the client experience was actually quite easy.

One of the tools employed by Hagertyto track and improve CX: the Net Promoter Score (NPS), a concept pioneered by Reichheld in his book The Ultimate Question. Essentially, NPS depends on asking customers a single question on a 0 to 10 scale ("How willing are you to refer this company to a friend or family member?"), turning the answer into percentages, and then tracking the movement of these percentages over time.

One of the reasons that Hagerty and other companies like using NPS is that it provides a single clear metric that has been shown to be a good predictor of future behaviors, like repeat purchases and word-of-mouth referrals.

Flowers says that, in addition to NPS, Hagerty uses client journey mapping, gap analysis, web analytics, usability testing and other CX tools.

Over the 18 months that several of these new approaches have been in place, the outcome for Hagerty has been a much deeper understanding of what drives satisfaction and loyalty.

Flowers says that "we know the pain points and the bright spots for clients. Even more than before, there is consistent consideration of the client in everything we do from project prioritization to process design."

Interestingly, the approach is often not about instituting more standards and scripting of behavior; instead the focus is often on 'de-institutionalizing' service. Flowers notes that "whether it's a personal response from our CEO about a problem someone experienced or a handwritten thank you note from a Licensed Sales Agent to a long term client," Hagerty works to give clients a personalized experience of service.

Cherry Republic Sees Beyond the Store

The unscripted and authentic interaction with employees is also the goal of Cherry Republic's customer experience initiatives. The northern Michigan purveyor of specialty food and beverages captured this idea a number of years ago by letting employees know that they should see themselves as cherry ambassadors.

Jason Homa, Cherry Republic's vice president of sales and service describes this approach as follows: "When you are traveling on vacation, sometimes the most memorable experience you have is making a connection with a local person. We encourage our employees to be that person, to tell stories about a favorite trail or beach. For us, this is the foundation of building a memorable customer experience."

Though Cherry Republic encourages employees to be "more fluid than rigid" in their approach to the customer experience, the company has implemented a number of guidelines for customer experiences. In order to test whether these are working as intended, the company has used a formal mystery shopping program over the past two years.

Homa explains, "We use mystery shopping to understand our effectiveness from the customer perspective." Cherry Republic has found that customer comment cards and letters tend to be very extreme – either very positive or very negative. The mystery shopping gives a more balanced perspective of what is working and what is not.

Having this enhanced and specialized CX focus gives Cherry Republic tools as it expands into new markets. The company recently opened a retail store in Ann Arbor and had a readymade set of experiences and approaches to take the "northern Michigan experience" and translate it into a new location.

Bill Marsh Pursues Greatness

Bill Marsh Auto Group instituted many of its current CX initiatives in response to a goal to be the best customer service company in any industry in northern Michigan.

Bill Marsh, Jr., co-owner of the company, says "We started with our vision – to be the gold standard or reference point for customer service in the markets we serve."

The auto sales and service company works to achieve this vision by training every single new employee in customer service and by offering "graduate level" training for all customer-facing employees once per quarter. Graduate level topics change from quarter to quarter. A recent topic was "Power Talking,' a set of approaches to frame customer dialog in positive terms.

Bill Marsh Auto Group also uses the NPS approach to measure progress towards CX goals. Says Marsh, "NPS has given us a universal measurement so that key departments in the company have a common metric by which to assess our level of service."

In addition to strong evidence of improved customer loyalty resulting from its CX focus, Bill Marsh Auto Group has seen a change in employee attitudes and satisfaction. "When employees are engaged in delivering a higher level experience, that impacts the way they think about themselves," says Marsh.

"We've had customers of our Pit Row departments write in and say 'I'd swear you're giving your people a happy drug every morning.' We like to think we've taken a mundane, commodity experience like changing oil and changed it into a staging ground for great, memorable customer experiences," he says.

What's Next for CX?

Although customer experience management is evolving, with new and more sophisticated tools available, the first step can often be quite basic. It can be as simple as "… treating clients like you want to be treated. It sounds cliché but it really is the little things like saying thank you and we're sorry," says Flowers.

Simple maybe, but until the day when all companies treat their clients this way, smart northern Michigan companies can still win an advantage by effectively managing the customer experience. BN

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