Why do customers do business with a store?
That seems like a very basic question, but it is overlooked with surprising regularity. It is no longer enough to offer a product or service — there are plenty of those to go around, after all, and plenty of competitors eager to offer the same products and services for a penny or two less than the prevailing rate.
Customers do want those products and services, of course, but they are increasingly aware of the physical and emotional context in which they are delivered. This is the customer experience, and it is something businesses ignore at their own peril.
As Starbucks has demonstrated, customers are willing to pay a little bit more for something if the act of purchasing it makes them feel good.
"It's all about the experience, and technology is a tool to create experiences," said Brian Ardinger, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Lincoln, Neb.-based Nanonation, a provider of digital signage software. "Whether it's a one-to-one interaction to provide information or make the trip quicker, or it's a one-to-many experience where you're giving people a great feeling about being in your store, it's all about how you use technology to create customer experiences."
That emphasis on the customer underscores one of the biggest mistakes businesses make when deploying technology: focusing on the technology itself rather than on the customer.
Ardinger said technology and its specific implementations should be the very last things considered in the planning process, while too often it is tackled first.
So what should be tackled first? Start with a clear understanding of why customers are interacting with a business in the first place. What do they want out of the relationship?
A customer in a grocery store might want quality food at reasonable prices. If that's the case, she'll comparison shop and find the store with the best cost/value balance for her budget. On the other hand, if she's an epicure who wants organically grown produce from local farmers, a boutique grocer will meet her needs.
A family shopping for a new car might be looking at a used car lot for a reasonably priced minivan. But if Mom and Dad both are recent recipients of big promotions, they're likely to be on the lookout for a Lexus or Volvo SUV.
A bank patron wanting to open a new account might be in a hurry, with a few hundred dollars in his pocket and the desire for nothing more than a bare-bones savings account. Or he might have a check in his pocket with several zeroes on it, which he thinks should entitle him to a higher level of customer service.
Customers are increasingly aware of the physical and emotional context in which products and services are delivered.
This is the customer experience, and it is something businesses ignore at their own peril.
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A customer buying a lawnmower on a Sunday afternoon probably wants to look at a handful of models, try out the handles and read a little bit of information on gas efficiency and blade adjustment levels. That same shopper out looking for an LCD television wants a different experience, a brighter and more technologically impressive one.
Even if a company feels it has a good assessment of what it offers to its customers, it is worth revisiting every few years — especially now, as customers find themselves suddenly in control of a great deal of information that previously was out of their grasp.
"Certainly, consumers do a lot more comparative research on the products they're planning to purchase, but the availability of different levels of product quality and price points matches their expectations with their purchasing decisions," said Tony Turiello, group manager of solution sales for Secaucus, N.J.-based Panasonic System Solutions Company, a provider of turnkey electronic systems solutions. "As far as customer service, much of it has been outsourced, and the experience is quite similar across different product lines. The change in attitude is that the consumer's tolerance level for mediocrity is lower."
No matter what the specific nature of a customer/business interaction, Ardinger said it can be grouped into one of three basic categories:
Make it quick
Life is complicated, and customers are always looking for ways to save time. The old stereotype of a leisurely day spent running errands has become quaint, as the people running those errands juggle work duties, cell phone calls, family activities, volunteer work and all of the other demands of adulthood.
Naturally, any business that promises to save some precious time will be appreciated — as long as it really works.
For many retailers, self-service has become a powerful tool in getting customers in and out quickly. Self-checkout has been an unqualified success in the grocery segment, and informational kiosks and price look-up devices have largely eliminated the need to get live assistance from store staff.
"We talk about empowering the customer — giving them the power to take control of their shopping experience," Ardinger said. "We want them to be able to make it quick with self-service, or find something at the right time — getting them to their end goal as fast as possible, using technology."
Solve a problem
Sometimes a customer enters a store for leisurely reasons — to spend some time (and perhaps a little money), interact with the things he enjoys or simply get out of the house.
These are pleasant respites for the shopper and valuable encounters for the retailer — there is nothing better than a happy customer, after all. But more often, the customer will enter a store or a bank or other business because he has a problem that needs solving.
Take the big-box home center, for instance.
Most shoppers who enter one of these stores have a specific need, such as a nut that fits a certain bolt, a shower head to replace the one that cracked this morning, a new lawnmower to replace the one that gave up the ghost that afternoon.
Self-service and digital signage technology, when intelligently planned and deployed, can do much of the heavy lifting of solving these problems.
- A touchscreen kiosk can replace a weighty paper catalog of parts, allowing the shopper to quickly find the right bin for the needed bolt.
- An informational video, displayed on the front of a shelf, can educate the customer about the different types of shower heads available.
- Large-screen wayfinding signs can help the new arrival get straight to the lawn hardware department.
A retailer needs to provide the customer with an ability to take action, Ardinger said. The closer he can get to that personalized experience, the more the customer is going to interact with the brand and have a better feeling about it.
"A good example of this is Royal Caribbean," he said. "On their ship, in the spa and health club areas, there's a 65-inch touchscreen where the customer can actually go up, find out all of the information about what particular massages are there, or which facilities are available, and it gives a really immersive experience where the customer actually drives through and determines what they want to look at, when they want to look at it and why."
Compare that with the old experience, where a customer would walk up to the one sales associate available, who was typically trying to take reservations. That one person would have to answer the same question 50 times for every single person that came up to the device.
"So, it's empowering the customer to make those decisions and choose what's important to them to focus on," Ardinger said.
Create a "wow!"
Sometimes it is enough to deliver the right product or service at the right price at the right time. But increasingly, it is not; after all, how many other people within driving distance offer the same product at a comparable price?
As competition steps up across all segments, the need to create a positive experience — to create a "wow" in the mind of the customer — becomes increasingly important.
"Business is becoming much more competitive,"Ardinger said. "And in the environment that people are surrounded by every day, they can get pretty much everything they want. So why would a customer want to interact with your business? Using technology to provide an answer to that question is a pivotal goal."
"'Wow' is about giving them a reason to come back," he said. "Why would I want to use this system over and over again? It can't just give me value, it also has to resonate with me."
(Excerpted from the recently published DigitalSignageToday guide, "Shaping the Customer Experience with Digital Signage." To read more, download the free publication.)
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