Retail customer experience: it’s a hard sell

Rapide’s Yiannis Maos has a somewhat unique take on retail customer experience: every time he goes to his favourite shop he wants a different one. (Experience, that is. Not shop.) He blogs:

“When walking into an independent shop, restaurant or hotel, straight away you notice something – “this is like nothing I have seen before”. That’s because you haven’t. One of the things I love about them is that every time you visit you get a different experience.

I applaud Maos for wanting constant variety and diversity in his life. (After all, I’m in the same boat. Life’s a journey where you choose your own pitstops, and I believe there should be constant action. It’s why I’ve trekked across deserts and jumped from planes a hundred times, why I’ve worked in six countries and haven’t had a “proper” job in over a decade. If I walk down the street and fewer than three bullets get fired at me, I find it hard to stay awake.)

But the reality of business is that most people don’t. An inconsistent experience, however positive, remains inconsistent. There’ll be no brand perceptions carried across locations, no shared values for people to talk about. Like it or not, a huge part of customer experience comes down to getting what you expect, even if the quality’s lower than what’s available. The mustard-coloured pants that arrived in your mailbox are great if you like mustard-coloured pants (amazingly, some do) – but if you ordered a quality pair of black 501s, your out-of-box-experience will be somewhat suboptimal.

An example comes to mind of a UK brand called Southern Fried Chicken. The chicken’s probably okay if you like that sort of thing. But after years of immoderate franchising where storeholders weren’t even held to a common set of colours and logotypes, the brand equity is in effect… zero. Even though it’s entirely possible that every visitor, to every store with a Southern Fried Chicken sign in the window, receives a perfectly good experience.

And – if you’re the chainstore’s shareholders – a different experience each time means no brand values get carried through. Which means there’ll be no net gain on word-of-mouth marketing, no multiplier on the P/E ratio, no saleable value in the business beyond that of the individual stores. An explosion of experiences isn’t manageable or growable. And because customers like different things, you’ll be running your losses and cutting your winners too often.

Individuality doesn’t scale.

Which might make you think I’m cheerleading for frozen-faced script-reading big-box chainstores. I’m not. When I’m barrelling down a US Interstate I make a point of always pulling off to a street five minutes away, where the Mom ‘n Pop restaurants are. Time and again I’ve had stunning burritos, homecooked ribs, tasty burgers a thousand times better than anywhere with a golden arch over the door.

And that’s what I think Maos is really trying to get across here: whatever it is, customer experience should be authentic.

I’m not sure he actively dislikes the Costa Coffees and Tescos of this world – it’s possible he’s even shopped in them. What he dislikes is the all-too-common inauthenticity of them: the boring repetition of a standard script, the “Your call is important to us” barefaced lie of IVR. The presentation of something as fresh and original that’s not.

This, I think, is our common ground: good customer experience has a human voice, and speaks with genuine warmth and honesty. Whether you’re in the depths of generica or Mo’s Solo Diner on the wrong side of the tracks. And there, at least, we can agree.

 

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