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Book Excerpt: The Tribal Experience
Customers may be newly empowered, but they still want to be delighted. Can you still deliver?
For the rest of the May 2010 issue of CRM magazine please click here
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A stressed-out customer calls into a flower shop. “I need you to ship a dozen roses right now to this address,” he demands, rattling off the address and his credit-card number.

The customer service rep pauses before replying. “Sir,” she says kindly, “can you tell me why you’re stressed?”

“Ma’am, it’s none of your business,” the caller brusquely responds. “Please don’t ask me questions. Just ship the roses.”

“Sir, I promise to do that right away. But can you please tell me why you’re upset? I can sense it in your voice.” She continues to prod for an answer, gently and quietly, extending the call without a single thought to average handling time.

Finally the customer blurts out the true circumstances: “I forgot my anniversary yesterday. My wife isn’t talking to me, so I’m sending roses to see if she’ll forgive me. Are you happy now?”

“I’m truly sorry about what happened,” the agent says. “Here’s what I’d like to do: With your permission, when we send the roses, I’ll write a note saying that we apologize for shipping the flowers to the wrong address yesterday. And I’ll add a small box of chocolates. Will that work for you?”

After a moment of stunned silence, the once-agitated customer says quietly, “You’re going to do that for me?” 

Picture that customer for a moment: See him sitting back in his chair, relaxed once again because one savvy customer service agent made his problem go away. And, in fact, it’s that very situation—and that very chair—that reveals the secret of what customers really want. Many studies show that customers have one primary desire: They want a chair—a comfortable chair in the middle of a peaceful green meadow. They want to sit in that chair, in quiet surroundings, completely relaxed. (Metaphorically, of course, unless you happen to be selling chairs and/or real estate.) Customers want to sit in that chair after dealing with your company. They had a problem, they came to you, you took away the problem. Now they can sit in the chair and bask in the peace of the meadow.

Customers don’t turn to you for a link to your Web site where they can do all the work themselves. They come to you for solutions—and a memory. The first question you should ask when designing your customer experience strategy is “What memory do you want to leave behind?” The customer completes a form, clicks out of the Web site, finishes reading a direct-mail piece, walks out of your retail store—what memory does she take with her?

Each of us is a collection of memories. We don’t hold onto products, research, or documents—we hold onto memories and recollections, good or bad. Customer experience is based on and influenced by those memories, and not necessarily memories of your company. When a customer experiences your product or service, your people, or your entire organization, will she find herself sitting in that chair, enjoying the memory, or is she going to be overwhelmed, with bad memories crowding out the good?

Customer Experience in the Virtual World

The world as we know it has ended. Again. This latest apocalypse is unraveling marketers in a familiar way: A new technology is taking over and the marketing world as we know it is coming to an end.

What am I talking about? Twitter? Maybe. Facebook? Getting a little dusty. Blogging? Old stuff. The Web? Prehistoric times. Television? It’s clear our marketing world, crumbling with each new media wave, is pretty fragile.

When Twitter—which allows individuals to broadcast short messages of up to 140 characters anytime, from anywhere—popped onto the scene, pundits again proclaimed that customer relationships as we knew them were over. I’m a bit tired of such punditry, particularly when it’s all too apparent that people are simply glorifying a new means to an end, rather than the end itself. Just as they did with Facebook and MySpace. Just as they did with the Internet. Just as they did when “moving pictures” were about to put an end to live theater.

When direct marketing first exploded, many experts predicted that the retail channel’s role would drastically diminish. When email and Web chat blossomed, many projected the demise of contact centers. Speech technology was guaranteed to replace traditional interactive voice response (IVR) units. As we all know, however, direct marketing, email, Web chat, and speech technology today live side-by-side with the retail channel, contact centers, and traditional IVRs—which remain alive, well, and critical components of the customer experience.

The flaw in reacting to Twitter and other Web 2.0 innovations as sea changes in the world of marketing/communications/transactions/fill-in-the-blank is thinking that somehow the medium changes the customer. Yet, customers were socially networked human beings before MySpace. They sought to compare and research products before the Internet. They passed notes in high school before texting existed.

The sea change is actually how consumers go about connecting with each other and, far more significantly, with you and your brand. Unlike in the past, you can now directly and interactively touch customers’ core emotions and needs to build strong relationships beyond face-to-face engagements. You can empower customers, engage them, and reinforce their need to stand out as individuals. And, in fact, you must do all these things, because today’s Web-savvy consumer knows you have the capabilities, and will expect and even demand you to deploy them. 

You must stop appealing only to utilitarian customers, those who seek expediency over experience, and connect with tribal customers, those who connect with those around them—their networks  and friends—like a tribe. Customers can be both utilitarian and tribal, but that’s generally due to Web efforts that have forced the tribal to act in utilitarian fashion.

Fail to use the virtual world’s new tools in the context of customer need and experience and you’re dooming your brand to one of two fates: anchored in the past or reliant on an unachievable science-fiction future in which robots do all your selling (and likely all the buying, too).

The key here is to think customer first, before considering any new Tools. This will help you avoid the errors of a generation of Web strategy that thought Product first and then applied Tools—or Tools first and then tried to make them benefit Processes: “Wow! This Information Superhighway thing’s pretty cool. Let’s get a Web site up by Tuesday. On Wednesday we’ll figure out what to do with it.”

What to Do With the Information Superhighway

The concentration of medium over message—and means over end—led us to stagnation, parity, and missed opportunities in Web 1.0. Web 2.0 allows us to finally reach out personally to distant consumers, inviting them in by creating virtual experiences in two areas we’ll call Self-Service 2.0 and Conversation 2.0.

Self-Service 2.0 gives customers control over not only managing such functions as online purchases, but also customizing and even controlling self-service—all the way to the point of designing their own products.

Conversation 2.0 allows deeper customer/brand communication, in the form of blogs, forums, and, yes, Twitter.

Both of these areas broaden the total customer experience and lead to total solutions that are even more powerful. But both require a significant shift in corporate attitude—from control and direction to participation and contribution. 

Companies want to maintain close control over branding and potential legal matters: “It’s our brand, it’s our space, it’s our way or the Information Superhighway.” But by yielding some of their traditional control, companies are trading logistical efficiency for a high degree of customer commitment and loyalty to the product and the brand, and in many cases are obtaining a premium price in doing so. If you ask me, this is a great trade-off.

Consider some of the advantages of a customer-centric Web 2.0 strategy:

• Increased engagement. A customer spending three hours on the Web but only two minutes on your Web site is a missed opportunity. She spends only two minutes there because your organization has transferred old processes to the Web without creating new reasons for customers to stay with the site. You’ve presented no opportunity to do something interesting. Interesting is two hours and 58 minutes elsewhere—a gaming site, a news feed, a competitor. Web designers speak of stickiness, the ability to hold consumer attention. Stickiness is important, but you must also seek addiction. You must make your Web-site experience so personal, and so interesting, that consumers feel they must return to you. Each minute someone spends on your site signals that the consumer is deriving value from you—and it’s a minute not spent at a competing site. One of the more important statistics in football is time of possession: how long each team maintained control over the football. Greater time of possession typically correlates to winning the game. What’s your time of possession in the virtual world?

• Memorable engagement. The delight and emotional engagement in the tribal Web experience weds the customer to your brand.

• Greater profits. Customers are willing to pay for personalization, particularly of product design.

• Word of mouth. Delighted customers talk about their delight. If those customers have created personalized products, they can show off their delight in public. Some product co-creation sites even allow customers to archive their designs so others can see them, or email their designs to friends.

The transition to sharing power with customers isn’t easy, but it has more to do with ego and tradition than with actual product design. Many executives can’t accept the fact that they must share power with customers. This denial forces them to refuse to accept the fact that their customers can reach millions of people via the Web and other modern tools. In terms of reach, these tools place customers almost at the same level as your company, which has the ability to reach millions via such corporate tools as mainstream advertising. 

Don’t get me wrong: The issue of consumer control versus brand control is by no means black-and-white. The degree to which you give up some measure of control is relative and must be carefully thought out. Each company will be able to give up a varying degree of control based on its unique products and services.

And this transition needn’t be made immediately. Take baby steps. Start by allowing customers to select or create the external design on their own. Then gradually incorporate greater levels of design creation with customers to reach the ultimate personal-platform status.

The Utilitarian Customer versus the Tribal Customer

The first step involves understanding how initial attempts at leveraging the Web tried to force customers into a company-serving corner, corralling the utilitarian customer. Even though the Web is a medium full of personal discovery, emotions, and interactions, self-service sites often manage to produce the opposite experience. 

In the new virtual world, an organization must move away from providing a price-driven interaction channel, instead providing a destination and a platform that generates passionate experiences. While companies have focused almost exclusively on the emotionless utilitarian customer, a new type of customer—the tribal customer—is steadily making his presence known. The tribal customer seeks emotionally engaging Web experiences and craves emotional interactivity and personal expression. These customers are often self-expressionists who want to connect and interact, personalize and co-create, and, most of all, share and express experiences.

Whereas the time-starved utilitarian customer seeks to minimize time spent on functional e-commerce, the expressive tribal customer wants to spend more time on Web sites—at least on ones that offer emotional interactivity, personalization, and self-expression. The tribal customers will grant loyalty to those sites (and companies) that provide such experiences. 

Let’s put the virtual world in context with one simple statement: It is not a channel. The Web experience is misdirected if it’s used—as most companies approach it today—only to reduce the costs of interacting with your customers. (See sidebar, “The Trouble with Tribal,” below.)

In the early days of Self-Service 1.0, companies simply migrated existing processes to the online world, layered on a bit of information, and set the customer off to do their work for them. This amounts to little more than extending a customer service rep’s work screen to the generally available Web. We have outsourced basic support to the customer herself without paying her for the effort. Some companies went even further, actually charging penalties to customers reaching out to the contact center, as a form of deterrent.

Replicating existing processes on the Web wastes the Web’s greatest opportunities. In taking this approach, organizations fail to realize that if their sites present just a series of processes, then they are no different from the competition.

Take the banking world, for instance. Retail banks now allow each customer to access her account information online and carry out such transactions as account transfers, bill payment, wire transfers, and foreign-currency transactions. These are great services, but they’re still Self-Service 1.0. Any teller can conduct these transactions. What’s more, if, say, self-service loan origination doesn’t differ from Bank #1 to Bank #2, if the process for checking my credit-card account doesn’t differ from Bank #1 to Bank #2, then what’s the difference? 

This migration accelerates your commoditization. Here’s why: On the Web, your brand is exactly the same size as your smallest competitor. The customer’s point of reference is a screen that doesn’t change size from site to site regardless of corporate assets, history of being in business, quality of products, and so on. What’s more, you’ve taken a significant barrier to entry and lowered it to the level of your smallest competitor. Technology is easily available to all, and in many cases competitors can deploy such efforts as YouTube videocasts as easily and as cost-effectively as you can. 

Perhaps the saddest problem of all is that, ultimately, the utilitarian customer was merely a figment of efficiency-hungry managers’ imaginations, and that serving that mostly imaginary customer has accelerated the race to (at best) parity. Today’s self-service sites are seldom a competitive differentiator. Their presence simply acts to eliminate competitive inferiority. And in the absence of rich, emotionally engaging experiences, self-service sites drive customers to define preferences primarily based on price. The commoditization factor is exacerbated by the customer’s ability to switch to the competition. The barriers are as small as a mouse-click, meaning that companies hardly get a chance to make their pitch. Customers are in full control as they shift from one site to another at speeds never previously experienced. 

Self-Personalization Experiences

To apply the concept of the tribal customer to the Web experience, let your customers customize your Web site for themselves. Let them dictate what they see, where they see it, and the form they see it in. If you insist that your site look exactly the same for whoever visits it, you have created nothing more than the electronic version of one-size-fits-all. If you allow customers to make their Web experience their own, they will invite their friends. But to enable this platform, you must be willing to relinquish the control that brands so often cling to. 

Don’t present the same Web site to me and to my grandfather. Guess what? I’m going to go to the competitor’s site that is not for my grandfather. Do you remember that classic ad campaign—“This is not your father’s Oldsmobile”? In the world of the Web, any site I visit should be saying, “This is not your father’s Web site.” (For my father, of course, the site should say, “This is your Web site.”)

Self-service is more than researching troubleshooting tips for products that don’t work, submitting a purchase order, or getting a book of First Class stamps from the kiosk outside the post office. Self-service is now collaboration. [See this month’s Customer Centricity column, “Putting the ‘Self’ in Self-Service 2.0.”]

Self-Expressive Experiences

People express themselves and their uniqueness through the products and services that they use—witness the huge popularity of Izod Lacoste sports shirts (the ones with the little alligator) in the ’70s. Now imagine the power of enhancing that self-expression by enabling customers to co-create the product or service they receive: Co-creation is a concept critical to maximizing the potential of the Web and to securing the loyalty of the tribal customer. 

Footwear companies are at the leading edge of offering collaborative product experiences, including customized brand-name shoes from NIKEiD, Converse One, Vans, and Timberland; painted shoes from PunkYourChucks; custom and personalized baby shoes from Darling Shoes and Soft Star Shoes and Moccasins; and custom high heels from Shoes USA. 

The change? Nike noticed that third-party designers advertised shoe-personalization services. A customer would send her Nikes to one of these designers, choose her favorite colors, and the designer would ink the shoes and return to her one-of-a-kind footwear. Instead of clinging to absolute control over its brand, Nike decided to incorporate this fringe behavior into a co-creation platform called NIKEiD. 

The Web-based NIKEiD service allows a customer to design shoes to her own specifications. The customer selects the colors from the toe to the laces to the heel and sole—down to the brand’s signature “Swoosh”—producing the look that best expresses her identity. The customized shoes are, of course, more expensive than the Nike shoes anyone can buy in-store. However, customers consider the additional expense a small price for the personal expression it delivers. From Nike’s standpoint, the delight and emotional engagement that the platform allows the company to deliver to customers—from the fun and challenge of designing their own look to showing off that look once the shoes arrive—is priceless. 

NIKEiD customers create shoes that are very personal and, in fact, part of a customer’s very identity. The NIKEiD shoes become more than just an external product a customer shares with others around the world. The shoes are as unique as the designer (a.k.a. the customer) and reflect each person’s individual taste, preferences, values, and personality. This kind of intimacy between products and customers generates the highest level of customer experience.

Consider the numerous benefits for Nike, which now:

  • captures what would have otherwise been third-party business;
  • commands higher margins with a higher-price, higher-value service;
  • has reduced the number of returns (customers are less apt to return their own unique creations than they are to return one-design-fits-all shoes);
  • personalizes its customers’ experience with a co-creation platform;
  • appeals to the tribal customer who wants to share her designs with friends (thereby extending the marketing reach of the site itself); and
  • has a virtual laboratory to track fringe behaviors and fuel further innovation.

Perhaps most important of all, Nike lets the consumers take control over a product that in and of itself is a personal statement. This is now more than a matter of personal expression via the brand someone has selected; this broadens to an instance of self-expression that tribal customers can talk about personally. “Look at my cool Nikes,” she’ll say, to anyone who’ll listen. “I designed them myself. You can, too.”

Look for opportunities to follow a similar path in your Web efforts—because at the level of co-creation, the product becomes the platform for expression. Companies relinquish the dictatorial position of “we know better” and embrace the position of “let’s share ideas” and “you participate in the process.” 

Co-creation, for example, was a strong driver of Apple’s success with the iPod: The device itself, lacking a clear social element, was merely a platform that allowed each customer to create a unique playlist reflecting her individual taste and personality. Compare this to the predefined song lists on albums and compact discs sold worldwide and you can clearly see the difference in approach. The record companies determine the product, forcing the customer to purchase a preselected set of 10 to 12 songs instead of providing her the ability to select the songs she likes. 

Sites such as eBay successfully reinforce the notion of product-as-platform by allowing customers to obtain the oddest products they wish to buy and not settle for products preselected by buyers employed by large store chains. Other examples of co-creation show the ability to enrich not only the customer experience, but the overall customer/brand relationship as well. Stony Creek Wine Press allows customers to co-create their own wine labels. A growing number of car manufacturers allow customers to choose interior and exterior design elements and a variety of features such as OnStar. A customer purchasing a refrigerator from one Israeli company can design the exterior of her refrigerator to complement her overall kitchen design—for a premium price, of course, which distinguishes it from the regular refrigerators offered in the stores. 

The more a customer becomes involved in the design and creation process, the more intimate her commitment will be to the product—and the company. The products become a natural part of her identity and are woven into her life. 

Lasting Experiences

Customer experience is founded on memory. Customers want to preserve their personal memories in ways that reflect their individual and unique experiences. Web 2.0 allows you to go beyond designing customer memory by bringing the customer into the co-creation model to create the memory in the first place, and then to preserve that memory.

For example, SharedBook has created a publishing platform that allows a user to extract, create, and manipulate data and content, then distribute that unique “MemoryBook” online or offline. In the tourism business, Regent Seven Seas Cruises employs this technology to enrich customer memories while at the same time generating extra revenue. 

We tend to take a lot of pictures when we travel, and we’ve all found ourselves with shots that crop off a subject’s head, that are blurry or dark, or that missed the Eiffel Tower because of a construction worker who suddenly stepped into the shot. Regent offers individualized commemorative albums weaving the best of each passenger’s tour pictures with striking standard shots of the destinations in a professional layout. 

Using a Web interface, the passenger creates her individual title, selects from a range of standard dedications (or writes her own), and chooses the cover photo and whatever vacation shots of her own that she wants to include. She can even select which ports-of-call from the trip she does and doesn’t want included. 

The result is a very personalized and specially presented memory. Even better? The passenger will surely want to show the book to her friends—in doing so sharing not only her memories but also the Regent Seven Seas brand.

When customers consider a future vacation while paging through this striking album, they remember not only the fun and glamour of the cruise, but also the brand that delivered that fun and glamour. This deepens the customer experience and strengthens the brand relationship.

Would all self-service channels be candidates for co-creation? Probably not—in the same way that not all self-service channels are differentiators. Yet many of these channels can be and should be differentiators if you rethink them from the perspective of customers and co-creation. 

It is time to rethink self-service with a target of not just easy and intuitive experience, but as a delightful, differentiating experience. That will require placing customers at the center of the design, allowing them to contribute and individualize the outcome. You must measure and determine the success of the self-service channel in the context of creating future loyalty and not just in the context of reducing complaints. And you may have to accept the fact that, in some cases, self-service might not be the answer: There will be times when human interaction is the right way to go to create differentiation and future loyalty. 

Shared Experiences

The mark of an enduring and memorable experience is that it can be shared with family, friends, and colleagues to allow them to participate directly or indirectly (at some time in the future).

For example, when you search for a nearby bricks-and-mortar location on the Barnes & Noble Web site, the site asks you, “Would you like a friend to come with you?” The site allows you to send an email to that friend, inviting the friend to join you at the location. 

Notice the transition here: Barnes & Noble embellished a personal experience—the physical bookstore—with self-service on the Web, where customers can browse and buy without any human contact. But then the company employed the Web not just to encourage a return to the physical experience, but also to extend that experience to the consumer’s social circle. Here, the co-creation lies in the customer’s ability to engineer the personal experience, while at the same time giving her a choice of shopping channels to use to get her books.

Sharing is an integral part of today’s Web experience, from social networking sites such as Classmates.com to event-planning sites such as Evite (which offers a photo center for users to share party photos and view other guests’ photos). At a more day-to-day level, news sites allow readers to email links directly from the story pages.

Remember the commemorative album customized for Regent cruise guests? Created online, and available for sharing online, the book also has a physical component: Passengers can order a hardcover or paperback version, further bringing the quality and the passion of the brand to life.

The Web and other new communication media are not channels, and they are not means for reducing the costs of customer interactions. As a whole, they constitute an environment that allows tribal customers to thrive in interacting with people important to them, and sometimes with people they have never met. Are you going to join the conversation? Or are you going to stand outside and achieve irrelevance? Will you embrace and leverage the tools? Or will you try to behave as if the world has remained stagnant and pretend that you still have control over every aspect of the customer relationship? 

The marketing world will “end” again with the arrival of new technologies, new means of communications, and new pundits to tell us how the latest revolution is “changing everything.” Just remember that whatever that “next big thing” turns out to be, human beings will continue to function as human beings. Always focus on the experiences and value you provide. 

The tools change. The channels change. The underlying “language” of marketing changes. Just learn to use them to complement your goal—the goal of delivering customer delight.   


Lior Arussy (lior@strativity.com) is the founder and president of Strativity Group. He is the author of several books, including Excellence Every Day (Information Today, Inc., 2008) and Customer Experience Strategy (2010), from which this piece is adapted. To learn more about customer strategies, sign up for his newsletter at Strativity Group’s homepage (www.strativity.com).

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