The buyers' market triggered by the recession has dramatically increased the pressure on companies to stand out from their competition. Since falling margins and parity in product features make it hard to create distinctiveness in price or performance, it's no wonder so many companies are focusing on the customer experience as a place to stand out. To achieve that kind of differentiation, most companies are trying to outdo each other in individual "touchpoints"—or the places they directly connect with customers, such as customer service or their Web sites. Reducing wait times by a few seconds, for example, should make customers happier and more likely to prefer the supplier, right? As it turns out, making touchpoint-by-touchpoint investments rarely pays dividends. A Corporate Executive Board (CEB) survey of more than 9,000 customers shows that customers' views of touchpoint performance have virtually no impact on preference. In other words, customers with low opinions of a company's touchpoints are just as likely to prefer that company as are customers with positive opinions. Common vs. UniqueDoes that mean the experience doesn't matter? Not at all. Customer preference is a function of the benefits customers derive in the experience, not the touchpoints themselves. The best companies recognize this and distinguish between benefits that are commonly available (e.g., "resolves my problem") and those that they can uniquely provide (e.g., "understands my supply chain"). Companies have to provide "common" benefits to be considered—they are expected, after all. But "unique" benefits have twice the power of "common" benefits in driving preference. Why? Because they're offered by only one supplier; customers can't go anywhere else to get them. They set a company's experience apart from the pack, giving customers a compelling reason to buy. Furthermore, CEB found that the companies achieving the highest levels of customer preference share some important traits: They deliberately choose a small number of "unclaimed" benefits to provide through their experience. They identify and overinvest in the one or two touchpoints where they can best showcase those unique benefits. They use other touchpoints to reinforce their unique benefits. Of course this doesn't mean companies can safely ignore their touchpoints; customers will defect if they hate every interaction with your company. Invest in touchpoints to make them good enough, but no better. Then, to truly differentiate your company, push additional resources into spotting and providing benefits through the customer experience that your company is uniquely positioned to own.
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