Designing superior customer experiences: Turning ordinary into extraordinary

Achieving success in designing superior customer experiences is a difficult challenge. Regardless of their industry, companies struggle to create memorable customer experiences and achieve the promised returns. McKinsey & Company registers that only a few top companies - precisely, less than 20% of the top ten in ten different consumer industries - are able to consistently raise their performances for at least three years (Stone & Devine, 2013). These difficulties result from the complexity of customer experience, which asks managers to focus on several different elements at the same time in an effort to align them consistently. Indeed, customer experience is a complex construct: customer experience is “a multidimensional construct focusing on a customer’s cognitive, emotional, behavioral, sensorial, and social responses to a firm’s offerings during the customer’s entire purchase journey” (Lemon &Verhoef,2016, p. 71).Thus, customers respond in multicoloured ways to customer experience (Figure 2.3).

Customer experience is a holistic concept based on any direct or indirect interaction with the brand, which can constitute the basis of a customer experience (Gentile, Spiller, & Noci, 2007; Holbrook, 1986; Lemke, Clark, & Wilson, 2011; Meyer & Schwager, 2007; Schmitt, 2003). Regardless of the specific industry in which it happens, interaction is the key component of any customer experience. Thus, it is not surprsing that many scholars have addressed the drivers of

Customer experience responses

FIGURE 2.3 Customer experience responses

Individual-brand interactions

FIGURE 2.4 Individual-brand interactions

individual-brand interaction. Indeed, individuals can interact with three different interactive areas of any brand (Figure 2.4), as follows:

1. Technologicalp/df/nnm.Technological platforms offer rich possibilities to immerse the consumer and create opportunities for interaction between the consumer and the brand. In addition, they create a flexible and adaptable environment, according to the individual consumer perspective. These are essential elements of any environment capable of realizing experiential learning (Walter & Marks, 1981), including those dedicated to brands.

  • 2. Physical environment. The physical environment of interactions between the consumer and the brand constitutes a privileged place to build experience. On the design of physical spaces to build a superior experience, there is rich literature on the psychological matrix. The principles of environmental psycholog)' that investigate the relationships among an individual, his/her behaviour, and the experience lived, on the one hand, and the environment in which he/ she is inserted, on the other (Holahan, 1986; Stokols, 1978), are now commonly applied in the design, construction, realization, and management of sales contexts. Experiential shopping studies are, in fact, capable of improving the sales performance of the place itself through the stimulation of emotions (Chebat & Dube, 2000; Groppel, 1993; Kotler, 1973; Kumar & Karande, 2000).
  • 3. Social enviroment. The social influences on consumption processes have long been recognized. The individual fits into a community and, as such, is subject to the power of others. Consumption communicates to others the nature of those who consume (Belk, Bahn, & Mayer, 1982; Belk, Mayer, & Driscoll, 1984).The symbolism of the products consumed is powerful, linking the image of individuals to that of their products. The social environment in which the individual is inserted, micro and macro, defines his/her role in the society and his/her own self-image. Virtual brand communities are a special type of social environment (Box 2.1).


"Virtual brand communities" is a term that has long identified technology platforms in which consumers interact with a particular brand as a focal object, to which they feel bound by a strong passion. It is the latter that, in turn, creates strong connections between community members (Muniz & O'Guinn, 2001). Virtual brand communities feed on rituals and traditions and develop long-term relationships that are valuable for trusted brands, rules, and personal relationships (Bauer & Grether, 2005).

Consumers participate in these communities for many different reasons: there are those who use them to obtain information about a brand or in an instrumental way to reach a goal; those who use them as an instrument of knowledge and self-study; those who make it a relationship channel with others to establish social relationships that give meaning to their life; those who use them to improve their social position; and finally those who use them as leisure and entertainment activities (Dholakia, Bagozzi, & Pearo 2004).

The engagement generated in these communities depends on many factors. Among these, the level of richness of the message takes on a particularly important role, especially if a media is associated with it; the level of interactivity proposed by the brand and offered to the consumer; the content of the message - i.e., whether it is informational or entertainment; the moment in which it is shared.

All this makes it possible to identify two major aspects of the engagement that is generated in the communities (Kozinets, 2014):

  • • the type and level of support for a brand that goes from the lowest levels and is, therefore, critical, to that expressing great appreciation and recommendation;
  • • the amount of creative work by consumers, ranging from minimum levels expressed with a simple "like" to those that require maximum effort such as creating content from scratch.

The interactive environment described above should typically offer consumers active participation. Consumers want to be protagonists. The era in which the balance of power leaned towards the brand is over. The concept of consumer power has expanded notably to include not only consumer relevance in generating brand revenue streams, but also in generating reputation and knowledge. If you take these as the two central dimensions to understand the success of a company, then the consumer who takes part in it acquires a power that has so far been overlooked. The recognition of this power also grants the consumer greater capacity to have an impact on internal processes. This is how the consumer is rediscovered, in that freedom of expression of engraving on the brand that, until recently, could have been neglected. One of the most interesting phenomena of consumer protagonism is user-generated content, UGC, which is the creation of content and messages realized directly by consumers and disseminated and shared online.

Further, diffusion of user-generated content has been stimulated by the increase in investments in customer centricity, by the importance of customer engagement and its returns, and by all customization investments possible especially in the online world (Christodoulides,Jevons, & Blackshaw, 2011).

If creating an interaction with customers is not difficult for marketing managers, the key question, then, refers to its success. Is any interaction able to engage customers and lead to a superior customer experience? The answer, unfortunately, is no, as well documented in psychology'.

Indeed, psychological studies help to address this question. According to research findings, only extraordinary experiences are memorable; however, not every experience is extraordinary by nature. Extraordinary experiences are very different from ordinary ones;i.e., while extraordinary experiences result from intense and involving practices that will be remembered over time, ordinary experiences are routine, part of everyday life, and are, therefore, less memorable and much more popular.The life of every individual has always been made up of ordinary', banal experiences, which are therefore taken for granted. Instead, only extraordinary experiences generate indelible memories, either because they are experienced by a small number of people or because they happen to an individual only rarely throughout his/her life. They can be experiences related to religion, love, art, philosophy; in all cases, they are experiences that remain indelible in the mind of those who live them.

Although psychologists have examined both categories (Abrahams, 1986;Turner, 1994), extraordinary experiences are the most appealing for managerial practices. Indeed, by virtue of their ability to change the individual, to produce an intense and lasting effect, to have an impact on the person’s life, they have collected a lot of managerial interest over time. The more the experience is characterized as extraordinary, the more its value will last or even increase over time through individual memories. If it is quite certain that not all experiences are extraordinary, it is equally acceptable that, by understanding the drivers of extraordinariness, it is possible to “empower” those that consumers live in an “ordinary” way. Thus, by drawing inspiration from psychology studies, marketing and brand managers can create engaging customer experiences and, via that, engaging brands even in ordinary competitive environments. Indeed, customer engagement is born of extraordinary experiences, not ordinary ones, which remain at a level well below a value scale.

Thus, understanding the features of extraordinary experiences highlighted in the psychological literature is a starting point to turn ordinary purchasing and consumption experiences into durable memories. While there is a multiplicity of interpretations of extraordinary experiences, from the peak experience theory developed by Maslow between the 1950s and the 1960s to the flow experience theory referable to Csikszentmihalyi and his studies at the University' of Chicago (among his first studies on the topic, see Csikszentmihalyi, 1974,1979), some characteristic traits univocally connote this kind of experience.

An extraordinary experience is perceived by those who experience it as a unicum; i.e., a unit that is complex and independent from all the rest, which gains complete attention from the individual. It is coherent with the culture and the background of the symbols that are embedded in the experience. The consumer enters a sort of complete absorption, so intense as to isolate him/her from the spatial and temporal context. For this reason, Csikszentmihalyi (1997) defines it as “optimal”, being of the highest quality level. An extraordinary experience is so engaging, profound, and beautiful that the individual loses control over time and space (Richardson, 1999). Through it, individuals discover the most intimate dimensions of their personality and thus it becomes an end in itself - autotelic. In fact, from this kind of experience, the individual becomes enriched: realizing the activity that involves the individual makes the latter stronger and more aware of his/her own abilities and limits. Although individuals can have this kind of experience in a variety of situations, from extreme sports to art, reading, surgery, etc., the way they experience and feel it is similar: chess players, composers, dancers, surgeons, those who practise extreme sports, etc., highlight the same kind of interaction that leads them to live an emotional experience, able to absorb them totally. It means that extraordinary experiences and their psychological conditions are similar for everyone. Specifically, two major components can be identified in optimal experiences (Figure 2.5):

An intrinsic balance in extraordinary experiences

FIGURE 2.5 An intrinsic balance in extraordinary experiences

  • 1. On the one hand, interaction takes place within an activity, a task that appears to the individual as a challenge.
  • 2. On the other hand, the individual must have a sufficient amount of skills and knowledge to face the challenge successfully, although this may seem difficult.

In other words, the optimal experiences are those that are characterized by the highest level of skills required and maximum intensity of the perception of difficulty of the activity and therefore of the challenge. Individual skills are perfectly balanced by the difficulty of the challenges. The situational challenge in which the individual is involved cannot be too difficult or too easy. In the first case, a state of anxiety may prevent the protagonist from the experience of appreciating the emotional flow; while in the case of a too-easy challenge, the individual would feel a sense of boredom. One of the best examples of optimal experiences is that of sport activities: extreme sports, in fact, are characterized by a high dose of risk and, likewise, of fascination (Rheinberg, 1995).The intensity of the risk to which the person is exposed changes considerably in relation to the practice. The extreme sports par excellence are considered to be those whose practice requires a certain level of training, and a psychological and physical preparation suitable to put a strain on the individual and his/her abilities. In these situations, the risk component is high and is controllable in some way only by people’s skills. A known case is that of the sport of rafting, which, according to participants, is an opportunity to test oneself, to grow, and to be in harmony with nature and with other people; i.e., part of a new community (Arnould & Price, 1993). The contours of an optimal experience are frequent in sports, sexual activity meditation, and also in listening to particular music or tasting specific foods or drinks, and, more generally, activities that require a particular intellectual effort, as can happen in the professional sphere.

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