Customer Experience Engineering

How to Engineer Experiences that Leave a Lasting Impression on Every Customer

Two young women walking into clothing boutique
••• Thomas Barwick/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Over the past few years, I have conducted a survey of customers to understand their likelihood to return to a retailer based on the "experience" they had shopping there. I would stand outside a retail store and talk to customers as they left or I would post on an online survey or even sent surveys to customers via email through various retailers. 

What was remarkable is that after thousands of submissions and interviews over the last three years, the data has remained the same. Customers no longer want their expectations met in retail - they want them EXCEEDED! I grew up in a time when customer service in retail was all about "satisfying" the customer. The problem with that idea is that for the customer - that is simply not enough anymore. 

In today’s ultra-competitive marketplace where your competition is not only the other stores in town, and also the other stores online, this fact should scare the heck out of you. After all, as a customer, it is very easy to have your expectations met by an online retailer. You know what you want (at least you think you do). You search for it online. You buy it. They ship it to your home. And your expectations are met. Simple - as long as the order is in stock, it ships property, the website works on the first try, etc.

If you want to compete today, you can no longer be in the business of just meeting expectations— you have to EXCEED them! There is no other path. This is the reason why so many believe loyalty is dead; because even if you do your job right, the customer still shops around next time. 

To exceed expectations, you must become a “customer experience engineer.”. Customer Experience Engineering is the art and science of engineering experiences that leave a lasting impression on every customer, every time. 

In this case, the engineer is really a retailing expert— - someone who “begins with the end in mind.” In other words, they start with what the customer experience needs to be (in our case one that exceeds expectations) and then creates or engineers the processes, policies, training, promotions, store design, signage, and hiring back with the end goal in mind. 

Think back to the time when you first opened your store. You probably were an engineer, but not an experience one. You focused on the brand and the look and the design of your store. But did you consider what the customer experience would be? Probably not. I know I didn't with my first store. I was focused on inventory and merchandising. I was more worried about my logo than I was the customer experience. 

True, none of us ignore the customer in our planning - at least that we will admit - but to be an experienced engineer, you have to be the customer and not be the store owner. Consider this, when you examine your store, yo are thinking like a store owner. You look at the cleanliness and the signage and the visual merchandising. Your focus is increasing sales or cutting expenses. You view your store through the lens of the P&L statement

But your customer views your store very differently. They view it through the lens of experience. Consider this, is your favorite restaurant the one with the fanciest interior and finish out? Is it the one with the most expensive food? Or is it the one you have the best time at? Research proves it's the latter. It's the experience you have when dining there that makes it memorable. Some of my favorite places are pretty old and ugly to look at, but the people and the food make it a fun experience. In fact, the outdated interior and the "hole-in-the-wall" atmosphere are part of the appeal. (But I never use the bathroom there.) 

Even online retailers are learning that customer experience is the key to successful retail. It's why we see so many online-only retailers opening their own brick and mortar stores today. Even the ones who said it was taboo to do so like have opened stores. They are trying to monitor and gauge the customer experience with products so the can try and translate that online. 

I remember sitting on a panel of experts at a retailing conference a few years back and everyone on the panel was predicting the doom of brick and mortar. In fact, everyone on the panel (except me) said that stores would be gone within 10 years - that the only reason to have a store was to serve as a pickup point for online orders. 

While it's true that retailers have used stores for online order pickup as part of a broader omni-channel strategy, the demise of the retail brick and mortar store is not. The reason I gave for my belief that stores would never go away was customer experience. And today, the big guns like Amazon are proving me right. But you didn't have to be a retail prophet to get this right - you simply need to be a customer yourself. 

Here are 5 Tips to Help You Become an Customer Experience Engineer. 

  1. Mystery Shop your Store. It starts with the customer experience in your store. So, as part of a regular rhythm, have your store mystery shopped and measure the experience. While I agree that cleanliness has an affect on experience, resist the urge to ask those type of questions of your shoppers. Here is a great article to help you get started. Use your friends. Use your best customers. I used to give my customers $20 to secret shop for me. 
  2. Train Experience and not Selling. Now that may sound like fighting words to you, but the point is that today service is selling and selling is service. So, when you have your employees focused on the customer experience, you are also focusing them on selling since they are one and the same today. Customers don't want a sales department and a service department. They want one person who can do it all for them. 
  3. Reward Experience. We know the adage "what gets rewarded gets repeated." Too many retailers simply reward the top sales person and neglect the experience. Consider this, it's possible to sell a lot of merchandise, but deliver a poor experience. The difference is those customers don't come back. They simply go somewhere else and look for a better experience. And often times, that is online. The point is, you never see them again. Only the ones who get a proper experience with their expectations exceeded become loyal. I realized )later than I wished) that I was reading the top salesman but he was not providing the best service. He was good for me today, but not next year when I went against the same numbers. So I created a weighted ranking system we called the "power rankings" that made sure service and repute customers counted more than sales results. 
  4. Compare Experiences. Here is the fun one. You see, a customer does not compare the service or experience in your store to other stores just like yours. In fact, they compare the service or experience in your retail store to the service or experience they get everywhere else. This is why I have always taught that your competition is anyone providing service. So, shop places who provide service and see what they do and how they do it. How does it "feel" when you go there? What do they do that makes you feel that way? How can you apply that to your store experience? Study banks and grocery stores and gyms and hotels and restaurants. All of them have a unique perspective, but the same principles when it comes to service. 
  5. Hire Employees who Naturally Think and Behave this Way. Here's the problem, you cannot train "experience." You can try and you can encourage and you can reward and it will have some impact. But the truth is, it's based on what you start with. Employees who are focused on experience are not just that way at work, they are that way in every part of their lives. It's who they are. Every one of the cashiers in my retail stores I hired from fast food drive through lanes. All of the employees were given the exact same training, but only the ones who were "wired" for experience actually delivered one. Leona Helmsley, the famous hotelier, was once asked how she gets all her employees to smile. "Simple," she said, "I only hire people who smile."
  6. Roleplay. Okay, there are six tips in this list of five, but consider it a bonus. Role-play is the most powerful form of training. It is the least favorite of your employees, but the most effective way for you to know if you are getting your message through. Remember, training without a change in behavior is about as useless as a parachute that opens on the first bounce. Role-play is the best way to change behavior. Create scenarios for your employees to practice their skills. Watch and monitor them as they do. Have the employees provide feedback to each other as well. Peers training peers is always the best form of training.