Offering products or services alone is no longer enough: Organizations must provide their customers with satisfactory experiences. Competing on this dimension means orchestrating all the “clues” that people detect in the buying process.
In recent years, managers have become increasingly aware of the need to create value for their customers in the form of experiences. Unfortunately, they have often proceeded as if managing experiences simply meant providing entertainment or being engagingly creative. The issue is far more complex than that.1 Restaurants that put photographs of movie stars on their walls and retailers that hang motorcycles from their ceilings — to give just two examples — will ultimately be disappointed in customers’ responses if they fail to make such objects part of a well-conceived, comprehensive strategy of managing the customer’s experience.
To carry out such a strategy, companies must gain an understanding of the customer’s journey — from the expectations they have before the experience occurs to the assessments they are likely to make when it’s over. Using that knowledge, companies can orchestrate an integrated series of “clues” that collectively meet or exceed people’s emotional needs and expectations. The internalized meaning and value the clues take on can create a deep-seated preference for a particular experience — and thus for one company’s product or service over another’s.
An organization’s first step toward managing the total customer experience is recognizing the clues it is sending to customers. Companies that sense trouble — in the form of falling customer-satisfaction scores or new competitive threats — would do well to consider undertaking the focused, comprehensive management of all the clues that give off signals to people. Fortunately, specific tools are available to help organizations with this process. And, as we’ll show, some companies are using the tools of customer-experience management to create a competitive advantage that is difficult to match.
Recognizing the Clues
When we talk about clues, we don’t mean the snippets of information or bits of physical evidence that only crime-novel detectives can find. In fact, the clues that make up a customer experience are everywhere, and they’re easily discerned. Anything that can be perceived or sensed — or recognized by its absence —is an experience clue. Thus the product or service for sale gives off one set of clues, the physical setting offers more clues, and the employees — through their gestures, comments, dress and tones of voice — still more clues. Each clue carries a message, suggesting something to the customer. The composite of all the clues makes up the customer’s total experience.