Protected markets are great things, while they last. But when they end, the protected companies pay a huge price. Do you remember when the US car industry lost its near-monopoly position with the entry of Honda and Toyota, who demonstrated that high quality was affordable?
When a consumer discovers there is something better after having had no choice, he feels ripped off by the monopoly-like provider. And that ah-ha is disastrous for companies when markets open as customer loyalty is essential to retaining market share. No wonder US consumers waited a decade to recognize that US car quality has improved dramatically.
The company that’s going to pay a heavy price for a monopoly-no-longer position is AT&T, the exclusive Apple IPhone network since the to-die-for phone’s introduction. With Apple likely to add other providers in 2011, one would think that AT&T would be working 24-7-365 to offer the best customer experience in its industry. In commodity industries like telecommunications, customer experience is one of the only differentiation levers.
A great customer experience doesn’t mean just having friendly people who help customers solve problems. It means finding ways to prevent problems and make the user experience hassle-free. With all the focus on consumer experience these days, companies too often miss this point. The underlying processes matter far more than the friendliness of execution.
Case in point: I recently spent 45-minutes trying to recover my online bill-pay password and username, required to pay my bill on time. Earlier in 2010, I spent about an hour remedying AT&T’s inadvertent cancellation of my voice mail.
Resolving service issues is not the only way that AT&T steals my time: to change my AT&T voice mail message, I have to respond to 6 different prompts and then listen to my current voice mail message before I can create a new one! I travel a lot, so the protocol costs me considerable cumulative time.
I share a specific company example to underscore a vitally important trend emerging in industries with seas of digital data. Customer-friendly experiences, designed to meet the needs of a particular customer, are becoming table stakes if companies want to stay competitive. Companies should find ways to harness all their customer data to proactively improve their customer experience.
For AT&T, providing a customer-unique—and vastly improved—experience could look something like this:
- “I see, Kay, that you entered your wireless user name and password for on-line bill-pay. Why don’t we use that as your bill-pay sign-in today? Would that be easier for you than trying to recover your bill-pay name and password?”
- In setting up my voice mail system, I would hear, “Tell us what you change most often in your voice mail options, Kay. We want to design your prompts to save you time.”
- Finally, “Did you know that you are now eligible for a 3-service discount that provides free long distance calling from both your landlines?” (Not knowing cost me about $400 I estimated.)
If AT&T doesn’t provide experiences like those I’ve recommended, I’m sure another telecommunications company will—and AT&T customers will switch to get more value for their time and money. Data-rich industries like financial services are already at the data-analytics frontier, with other industries such as health care and on-line retail earlier on the adoption curve. IBM’s Smart Planet branding capitalizes on this trend.
(To be fair to AT&T, a truly helpful representative called as I wrote this article in response to the e-mail I finally sent after I gave up trying to solve my problem. Score one for AT&T while the time-left-with-monopoly-clock ticks away.)
One critical challenge is that although data and analytics are key to managing and personalizing customer experiences, only 8% of Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) and 6% of Chief Information Officers (CIOs) say these areas are well integrated in their organizations, as reported by the CMO Council. It has partnered with the Business Performance Improvement Network and Accenture to create stronger alignment between CMOs and CIOs in an effort entitled the “The CMO-CIO Alignment Imperative: Driving Revenue through Customer Relevance”.
“This disconnect and challenge over strategic vision and ownership has created an environment where marketing feels forced to seek quick-to-deploy individual point solutions that may not effectively link to the established infrastructure or corporate strategy, and IT is often left feeling like glorified order-takers with little strategic voice,” said Donovan Neale-May, CMO Council’s Executive Director.
You might have the best business model strategy or product in the world. You might even have a protected market. But if your customer experience, be it in the digital world or real world, creates frustration rather than delight, you risk losing your customers, not to mention lowering your stock price.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Capital Region Business Journal. I will no longer be writing for the CRBJ, in order to devote more time to my blog.