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In 2010, global analyst firm Forrester Research declared this ‘the Age of the Customer’. Over the past six years, customer service has given way to a new more mature concept – customer experience, says James Bolle.

This is the new competitive battlefield for businesses, with 89% of companies saying this is they year most organizations will compete primarily on the basis of customer experience.[1] While customers have always been the lifeblood of business, the evolution from ‘service’ to ‘experience’ is important.  Customer service has traditionally been more of a responsive action, focused on distinct interactions and resolving complaints.

Customer experience on the other hand encompasses the perceptions of all interactions customers have with a brand over time. It is also about creating reciprocal relationships, where brands treat customers as trusted advisors who can help them improve their business. To truly understand and improve their customers’ experiences, organisations must adapt their listening and understanding strategies to fully harness their feedback.

Interrogation overload – the problem with surveys

Businesses are responding to the need to improve the customer experience, with many looking to surveys as a way to gather feedback and inform their decision-making at a corporate level.  Surveys enable the collection of a broad range of data that can be analysed at the individual and aggregate levels.

The urgent desire to understand customers, combined with readily available survey tools, makes it simple for every organisation’s department to send their own surveys to customers. Often these surveys are misaligned with each other, with one customer receiving multiple surveys from one company. Furthermore, many questions in surveys are not relevant to the customer’s specific experience and do not enable in-depth responses.

In attempting to improve their experience, businesses are frustrating customers by interrogation, rather than getting to the heart of genuine customer experience. This is neither efficient nor effective for gathering insightful feedback. The result is poor customer experience and feedback that does not provide valuable insight and does not allow the business to adapt and improve.

Customers have the ability to drastically change the perception of a company through positive and negative commentary, and businesses should make use of this rich tapestry of feedback in shaping the way they operate.

Those that are active in their response to customers and use feedback to make changes will be more successful as customer experience continues to increase in importance as a business barometer. This however, is often easier said than done. Brands looking to excel in the Age of the Customer need to cut through the clutter of survey barrage and find customer-centric was to listen and connect.

From scores to stories

One way brands can shift to a more customer friendly way of getting feedback is to add or enhance the ability for their customers to share their experiences in a more conversational manner.

Scores are important indicators of a general direction, however they cannot contain the essential ‘why’ information found in unstructured data like comments and online reviews that provides actionabililty. When the proper weight is given to stories, businesses have a new level of insight that can guide them in making relevant changes and improvements across their entire business.

Customers have been sharing their experiences through stories since the beginning of time. The first recorded customer review comes from Ancient Babylonian in 1750 BC where an unhappy buyer carved his complaint over receiving an inferior grade of copper into a stone tablet.

As stories remain to this day a valid and preferred method for leaving feedback through online reviews, tweets and other social content, this method of customer listening should be recognised and put it to good use by businesses.

The other advantage in collecting unstructured customer feedback is that customers naturally discuss the elements of their interactions that are most important to them, and thus, to their overall satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the experience.  This stands in stark contrasts to structured questions that tend to focus on specific metrics and data the business prioritises. Were the fitting rooms neat? How did you hear about us? Which other brands to you frequent? While the answers may be helpful in marketing and selling to customers, they don’t necessarily reveal how to create loyalty.

Thanks to technologies like advanced analytics it is now possible for customers to tell their stories however and wherever they want, for businesses to automate the understanding of those stories, and find role-based insights.

Advanced analytics enables businesses to identify patterns, trends and topics as well as comments about employees, products, performance and legal and safety issues. Insights derived from the analysis can then be automatically shared with the relevant people inside an organisation.

Shorter surveys, more listening

The good news is consumers want a reciprocal relationship with brands – they want to both receive value and give value, through feedback. Sharing stories is ideal for customers as it is easy – its human nature.

In a study conducted by InMoment in 2015, one in three consumers ranked ‘shorter surveys, more listening’ as their number one customer experience trend. In the verbatim comments in the study, one in five consumers specifically asked for more concise and relevant questioning.

While customers are experiencing a ‘death by a thousand questions’ they are making it clear they want to share their experiences in different ways. In a survey by YouGov.com, 44% of global customers stated that they regularly write online reviews.

Reviews can be incredibly powerful – highlighting areas of the business that may be underperforming or identifying a particular employee or team that provided excellent customer service. The challenge is the verification of reviews. Due to many review sites being unable to ensure all reviews are relevant, reliable and verified, many businesses have become disillusioned with their ability to offer useful insight.

In InMoment’s study earlier in 2015, consumers ranked more reliable online reviews as the second most important customer experience whereas businesses ranked them dead last. Although these challenges do remain with review sites like TripAdvisor, verified review sites, such as InMoment’s OpenTell, take steps to ensure feedback comes from real customers.

Whilst all customer feedback should be treated as the infinitely valuable resource it is, the true insight is found in stories. Businesses that harness these stories, and use advanced analytics to delve deeper into the customer experience, will be able to benefit from the full potential of a varied listening program and harness these nuanced interactions as an opportunity to build strong relationships with their customers.

James Bolle is VP – Head of Client Services, EMEA of InMoment

[1] Gartner Group

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