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Customer Experience – It’s in the Eye of the Beholder.

The message we think we send isn’t always the message that people receive. And the message we hear, isn’t always what’s being said.

A few years ago, in our research for a major professional services firm, an interesting insight came to light. In an interview with one of their top five clients, the interviewee said (and I paraphrase), ‘It’s strange, they never really try to sell us more services beyond what we’ve always bought. Maybe they are too busy elsewhere…’

She was strangely let down, almost offended. When we brought it to our client’s notice, their reaction was almost diametrically opposite: “We didn’t want to appear too salesy – they know what we do, we assumed they would tell us if they wanted us to do more for them.”

The customer told us, the agency, rather than their partner because we had no personal relationship and were unlikely to be offended.

It was a mild misunderstanding with a grave business impact – potentially millions in lifetime value due to missed cross-selling and up-selling opportunities. No matter how rational B2B decisions are supposed to be, it is still emotional people or groups of emotional people that make them. So attending to people is still key.

The problem is particularly acute in Ireland – we are not a direct speaking nation. Customers won’t always tell you what they should. Writer, Eoghan Harris calls it “The Clarity Crime” – people who speak clearly in Ireland often get accused of arrogance. Instead of speaking clearly, we use euphemism.

It’s what makes our literary tradition so strong. Playwright Colin Murphy puts it perfectly: “Euphemism. Ambiguity. Ambivalence. The unsaid… Our theatre is threaded through with these. The language of a civic culture that seeks to avoid direct argument, confrontation and clarity become a theatrical language incredibly rich in nuance, in evasion, in elision.”

In other ways too, service is like theatre – with performers, a paying audience, behind-the-scenes etc. One dud actor, one shaky performance gets remembered. The polite audience still applauds but it’s less likely to come back or to tell others to come.

So in a business era where Customer Experience and Customer Success matter so much, how can you be sure that your customer – on a personal, experiential level, is actually happy? This shouldn’t require expensive, intrusive surveys – but you do need some techniques to probe beyond superficial or politely ambiguous feedback:

1. Talk to users, not relationship-holders

Users feel the pain of poor customer experience. It impacts their job satisfaction and performance more than the person who selected the vendor or signed the cheque. And because they didn’t make the purchase decision, they will be more honest. They should be the first port of call when it comes to assessing customer experience – listen to them intently. If they are unhappy, it will soon derail retention.

2. Relationships change - so stay on your toes

As the customer lifecycle matures, so too do customers’ needs and expectations. Without drawing lame marital cliches, familiarity can set in, people feel undervalued, loyalty suffers. Developing a strong view of how your customer’s mindset changes over time helps maintain the right focus and a proactive approach to customer success.

The salesperson’s ‘hunter’ personality isn’t always suited to this boring monogamy and attentiveness. So look to Success Development Representatives – with the right emotional detachment from the key personalities involved – to engage deeply with customers about their unmet needs and coordinate the right response with Product, Sales or Marketing.

3. Walk in their shoes

How does it feel to be a customer or a prospect of yourself? Is it personal or anonymous? Illuminating or stultifying? Fun or dull? This matters: CEB (Gartner) have demonstrated that the sales experience is the most important determinant of customer loyalty.

So Sales & Marketing people need to sit on the other side of the table and objectively and critically evaluate the experience. Personally, I’ve always found being on the receiving end of SPIN selling to be boring and a bit patronising.

I feel like I’m being clumsily manipulated, so it creates resistance. So now I look to alternative approaches – like the Challenger Sale, which prioritises teaching over-diagnosing and I think (hope) is more rewarding for prospects.

4. Listen for the unsaid

Silence is difficult for people – we try to fill it by talking. Every salesperson knows what I’m talking about. But instead, we should listen for ‘the unsaid’ as Colin Murphy puts it above. What are we not being told by a customer, who likes us but doesn’t really like what we are doing? What should we be hearing, but aren’t? That means active listening and a willingness to acknowledge and address the less pleasant realities of our performance.

The inconvenient reality is that, in B2B customer relationships that have a strong personal dimension, the closer customer and vendor are, the less the vendor can rely on hearing the direct feedback they need to hear.

Employing some deliberate listening methodologies (as well as a healthy dose of paranoia) can help you to hear what’s important before it’s too late.

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