The First Step in Creating a Great Customer Experience

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Great customer experiences are the result of countless deliberate decisions made by every single person in your organization on a daily basis. To align those decisions, employees and partners need a shared vision: a customer experience strategy. When most people talk about strategy, they've often got a roadmap or some sort of plan in mind. But your customer experience strategy is actually a description of the experience that you want to deliver. Without that beacon, employees are forced to set out on a random walk, and their decisions and actions will inevitably be at odds with each other, despite all best intentions.

Great customer experiences are the result of countless deliberate decisions made by every single person in your organization on a daily basis. To align those decisions, employees and partners need a shared vision: a customer experience strategy.

When most people talk about strategy, they've often got a roadmap or some sort of plan in mind. But your customer experience strategy is actually a description of the experience that you want to deliver. Without that beacon, employees are forced to set out on a random walk, and their decisions and actions will inevitably be at odds with each other, despite all best intentions.

In Forrester's soon-to-publish book, Outside In, Harley Manning and I illustrate the importance of a customer experience strategy through a case study about the Holiday Inn. In the majority of its 750 properties with onsite restaurants, the iconic hotel chain was losing dinner customers to casual restaurants like Outback Steakhouse and Chili's. Even worse, it was losing breakfast customers to nearby gas stations--and you better believe that Holiday Inn got worried when gas stations started to provide better breakfast options than they did.

So what did Holiday Inn do?

Well, I'll tell you what the company didn't do. It didn't start randomly making one-off changes to the menu or the pricing. Instead, Holiday Inn stepped back to define a customer experience strategy.

It rooted that strategy in four brand attributes: inclusive, purposeful, social, and familiar. The company clearly defined that the experience was for "everyday heroes" --midscale business and leisure travelers who are self-sufficient, unpretentious, and sociable. And, as they were working on this, they realized that eating and drinking were just part of a bigger picture. Hotel guests also wanted to have fun, relax, and connect--and they wanted to seamlessly transition among all of these activities.

Holiday Inn summed up all of this in a customer experience strategy that it called the Social Hub, and described the experience it wanted to deliver: "We give guests flexible options so they can be themselves. That way they don't have to leave the hotel to get what they want. They can find it at the Holiday Inn."

Once Holiday Inn had a customer experience strategy, it was able to translate it into specific touchpoints that aligned with each of the main guest activities and with the brand. For example, to make the bar area even more social, it added perpendicular peninsulas to act as magnets for people to gather around. And it installed Apple computers in the hotel business center for aesthetic reasons, but to make the computers feel more familiar the chain installed Windows on those machines because it knew its guests weren't typically Mac users.

Consider for a moment all of the people involved in pulling this experience together: architects, interior designers, IT technicians, chefs, servers, and receptionists, just to name a few. In order to create the right customer experience-- one that worked for the hotel and its customers--all of the initial contributors and ongoing service providers needed a common vision to align their work. And that's what the Social Hub strategy provided.

Strategy is just one of six disciplines that companies must master if they want to achieve the full potential of customer experience. The others are customer understanding, design, measurement, governance, and culture. Of course, most of these concepts aren't new in the business world, but they do take on a slightly different twist when it comes to customer experience.

About the Author: Kerry Bodine is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research serving Customer Experience professionals. She blogs at http://blogs.forrester.com/kerry_bodine and tweets at @kerrybodine

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