David VanAmburg of The American Customer Satisfaction Index: “Reassess changes periodically ”

Reassess changes periodically — No plan is perfect, so it’s important to continually evaluate and make necessary tweaks. Sometimes a small fix can make a big difference to your customers. As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing David VanAmburg. […]

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Reassess changes periodically — No plan is perfect, so it’s important to continually evaluate and make necessary tweaks. Sometimes a small fix can make a big difference to your customers.

As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing David VanAmburg.

David VanAmburg is the Managing Director of the American Customer Satisfaction Index where he has spent over 20 years researching customer satisfaction and helping companies improve their customer experience.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I joined the American Customer Satisfaction Index in 1998 and one of my first projects was piloting the first government-wide initiative to measure citizen satisfaction using a uniform methodology. From that point on, I’ve been laser-focused on helping companies understand customer satisfaction. I’ve lectured at the University of Michigan and venues abroad, addressing the relationships among satisfaction, quality, customer service, loyalty, and shareholder value.

Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?

Making and keeping customers happy can ensure repeat business and help companies maintain a steady stream of revenue. The American Customer Satisfaction Index has identified a direct correlation between companies that have high customer satisfaction and those that perform well in the stock market.

How exactly to create great customer experiences will differ from industry to industry, but it’s imperative to businesses’ bottom line to identify what makes their customers tick and then serve those needs directly.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

It’s not necessarily that companies are undervaluing or not prioritizing a good customer experience. It’s more likely the case that they’re focusing on the wrong aspects of customer satisfaction. 
 For example, a major online retailer struggling with dwindling customer satisfaction noticed that ease of navigating the website, ease of finding merchandise, and speed of checkout were highly correlated to customer satisfaction. Management decided to improve site navigation and ease of finding merchandise. Subsequent surveys showed customers’ assessments of these aspects did improve, but overall customer satisfaction remained low and customer retention actually dropped. That’s because the correlations regarding navigating and finding merchandise were spurious whereas speed of checkout was causal. 
 This example illustrates why it’s imperative to understand the issues important to your customers — they may not be what you expect at the outset, and they may not all be related.
 Many companies don’t see the connection between customer experiences and their bottom line. They mistakenly think that the effort to improve customer satisfaction isn’t worth the money, but we have 25 years of data to prove that it’s worth everything you put into it.

Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?

Competition is key to improving customer satisfaction, but some industries are more competitive than others. Take cable TV, one of the least satisfying industries measured by the American Customer Satisfaction Index. There’s not a ton of providers to choose from, therefore customers get what’s available and companies don’t have to work hard to earn their business — that’s why satisfaction scores are low. But in retail, for instance, customers have so many choices on where to shop — from supermarkets to department stores to drug stores — that companies have to fight for customers’ attention and have to go the extra mile to keep them happy.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided? Did that experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

What I’ll reiterate is you have to understand your customer to “wow” them; there’s no one-size-fits-all method to providing a truly exceptional customer experience. Don’t ever assume what your customers want.
 For example, companies may think their customers want white-glove, hands-on treatment, but that may be the opposite for someone eating at a restaurant or ordering from a fast food establishment. In that case, customers may want their food to be delivered fast and to be delicious but they may also want minimal interruptions — like waitstaff checking in multiple times, which could get annoying. Sometimes service can be overwhelming or have the opposite effect on satisfaction, so the key here is to understand what will “wow” your customers and have them wanting to come back for more. 
 There are tools that can help you pinpoint areas for improvement; the good ones survey customers directly, analyze the data, and use cause-and-effect models to identify what drives satisfaction and loyalty.

OK, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create an exceptional customer experience? Please share a story or an example for each.

1) Do your research — Don’t just guess, but make sure you rely on sound data and evidence to understand what to prioritize. 
 2) Talk to stakeholders — Get a well-rounded perspective on how to create the best experience possible. Talk to your customer support teams, your sales professionals, and your financial gurus. Everyone’s input will ensure you capture multiple touchpoints of the customer experience and help you understand the value for your business (and what it will cost to move the needle).
 3) Take stock of your operations — Is there something you can do to make your customer-facing teams more efficient or feel more supported? Perhaps there’s a technological solution that can easily enhance the customer experience. Consider how you may tweak your operations to add more value.
 4) Implement the ideas — After analyzing the data, crunching the numbers, talking to a range of stakeholders, and assessing your operations, put your plan into action. Remember to focus on the customer, but without losing sight of your bottom line. It is a business after all!
 5) Reassess changes periodically — No plan is perfect, so it’s important to continually evaluate and make necessary tweaks. Sometimes a small fix can make a big difference to your customers.
Ultimately, there’s no universal “Five things a Founder or CEO should know” when it comes to customers. It depends on the industry, the market, and the product or service. You can’t overly simplify customer perceptions and expectations because a CEO of a cable company needs to take a different approach than the CEO of a soda company.

Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has an amazing experience, they inspire others to reach out?

If you’re creating an amazing experience for customers, leverage their feedback. Companies can ask if customers are willing to share their experience with their brand, which may include incentivizing them to post feedback on social media. 
 Loyalty programs are another way to keep customers engaged and inspire others to join; generally these help increase repeat business (and share of wallet) if they’re carefully created. Starbucks’ loyalty program is a good example, as it offers “challenges” to gain more rewards, including bring-a-friend deals.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Follow the ACSI on LinkedIn: and Twitter: @TheACSI

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