Using the Internet to Bolster the Customer Experience

Great companies typically have powerful brands, and world-class brands are established by consistently providing extraordinary customer experiences – across all channels.

Think of leading brands and unique experiences come to mind: Disney offers family fun, BMW delivers the ultimate driving experience, and American Express provides peace of mind for global travel and finances. This message is reinforced across all marketing channels: consistent creative, consistent messaging, consistent attitude. But you don’t need to be a multi-billion corporation to create compelling customer experiences. Rather, you need to think strategically about customer experiences and carefully design them to be compelling. Here’s how to think about using the Internet to bolster customer interactions with your organization.

Experiences & Brands

Defining exactly what a “brand” is can be tricky. While brands can mean different things to different people, they are fundamentally a promise for a specific experience. Think Motel 6’s “We Leave the Lights On,” Wal-Marts “Always Low Prices,” and Harley-Davidson’s “It’s Time to Ride” messages. These communication techniques establish a foundation for how the organizations uniquely interact with their customers and help them stake a claim in the marketplace.

Any company, no matter where it competes and how mature the industry, can create a customer experience to differentiate itself and strengthen the organization. Think package delivery and FedEx, oil changes and Jiffy Lube, and coffee and Starbucks. A recent Boston Globe story about Starbucks explained the importance of experiences from a strategic planning perspective: “”Products - even fancy products - can easily be copied. Experiences are hard to duplicate, which gives Starbucks a powerful competitive advantage.”

How to Think About Experiential Marketing

If customer experiences are the source of enormous competitive advantage, then they require attention and investment. And designing these “experiences” is the first step in the process. A recent Fast Company magazine cover story concluded, “The experience conveys the essence of the brand. And often, it’s design that creates the experience.” Chances are, your organization is already delivering unique customer experiences, and its brand is recognized by at least a small group of loyal clients, but it just hasn’t specifically quantified or nurtured these experiences. Allocating resources to this part of this business can deliver significant dividends.

Whether it’s Starbucks, Disney, American Express, McDonald’s, Bank of America, BMW, or Sony, the experience is managed carefully from start to finish – from designing the experience to implementing it - in order to compete successfully and command premium pricing. And in recent years, the Internet has played a steadily increasing role in that mission.

The Internet & Experiences

With the Internet playing a steadily increasingly role in shaping customer experiences, examining the techniques used by both large and small businesses to improve customer experiences yields interesting findings:

Starbucks

The coffee chain issues credit cards to customers which speeds up the transaction process. Customers can check card balance and add more funds through Starbucks.com, making it easier for them to spend money with the company.

Ford Motor Company

Ford allows you to “build your own vehicle,” choosing model, color, features, etc. through a slick interactive tool, which most auto companies have on their websites today. The feature helps customers envision exactly what their vehicles will look like, which plays an important role in the buying process.

Mac-Gray Corporation

Mac-Gray – a $150 million company located in Cambridge, and the country’s largest academic laundry services provider - recently launched LaundryView, which allows students to monitor the status of their laundry through a Web browser. This tool simplifies the laundry process, and provides Mac-Gray with a powerful competitive differentiator.

Glide Magazine

Glide is an upstart online magazine that caters to live music enthusiasts in the 18 – 35 year old demographic. The publication drives traffic to its website by making free, legal downloads of complete concerts available in a user-friendly format. This technique keeps existing readers regularly coming back to the site and attracts new ones. Last month there were 115,000 downloads, and the magazine is beginning to generate revenue by charging artists for placement on its site.

The Comprehensive Approach

The Internet is being used in innumerable ways by smart companies to improve the customer experience, bolster brands and gain competitive advantage. Only a handful of companies – like Amazon, eBay, NetFlix - use the Internet as the primary backbone of the organization. For the rest of us, the Web is being employed as a complementary tool; a piece of the puzzle. SMBs can look to big companies for online best practices to emulate, as well as use their creativity and imagination to use websites to out-maneuver the competition, get closer to customers by delivering unique experiences, and strengthen the organization.