Gartner's Customer 360 Summit 2015: Customer-Generated Conversations Build Reputations

Customer-centric tactics were the story on day two of Gartner's Customer 360 Summit in San Diego, as speakers made the case for creating phenomenal experiences that leave lasting impressions on buyers.  

"I'm here to talk about two things: reputation and competition, and the role the customer plays in driving both of these," Ken Schmidt, the former communications director at Harley Davidson, said to kick off the day. Schmidt explained how the motorcycle company was able to effectively clean up its sullied image, and bury the stigmas associated with its culture, over the past 30 years. This was partly done by deploying a lasting and an effective customer advocacy strategy, in which customers demonstrated passion for the products. Ultimately, the makeover has allowed Harley Davidson to become a customer experience leader.  

In detailing Harley Davidson's methods for staying ahead of its competition, Schmidt conceded that its key to success as little to do with the product itself. "Our competitors' products aren't good," Schmidt said. "They're phenomenally good. We learned the hard way that in a commoditized world, where everything looks the same, people will default to price and convenience."

Schmidt argued that this mode of thought could be applied to other industries as well, especially those in which products tend to be more or less similar. Unfortunately, the tendency in many industries, Schmidt noted, is for companies to mimic the leaders and "march in lockstep," while touting similar messages about quality and values. These messages tend to be generic and are dismissed by those who hear them. To illustrate the problem, Schmidt displayed a series of slides with 15 pictures of indistinguishable flat-screen TVs, with the only noticeable difference the brand name at the bottom center of the screen. Schmidt challenged the audience to come up with a good reason to purchase one brand over another, if under pressure. In such a case, Schmidt argued, people typically settle on the cheapest available offering.

To overcome the scenario in which customers simply opt for the least expensive offering, Harley Davidson has taken an approach that encourages ongoing conversations, ones that work to the company's advantage. That meant selling the lifestyle associated with its product rather than the product itself, and appealing to the customer's ego by encouraging him to shell out more for a bike that calls attention to the person driving it, thus giving him validation. For this reason, its customers will opt for a $24,000 bike that makes loud noises instead of Honda's offering, which costs only $8,000, Schmidt pointed out. He encouraged other companies to do likewise. "We need to control narrative," Schmidt said. "Tell [your] story the way you want it to be told." For example, the company invites influential people to its events and encourages them to say positive things about Harley Davidson.

Guiding the story is not limited to customer interactions but is also a vital tactic when trying to promote change within an organization, speakers suggested. "You have to be a great storyteller to lead change," said Matt Hotle, a vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. To get employees to agree to transitions and adapt to new technologies or processes, such as those introduced by organizations like Zappos or Harley Davidson, leaders have to manipulate and use stories that give workers an idea of what to expect in the future, as well as what specific problems the change will solve and how it will make their jobs better. Much like in the consumer world, change leaders can rely on peer advocates to influence those who initially might be against it. 

Gene Phifer, a vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, agreed that experiences, and the emotions those experiences elicit, are becoming a stronger differentiator than any other aspect. "We're evolving from a product-centered economy to an experience-centric one," Phifer said. Whether it is selling to consumers or to other businesses, "this is how you will make money going forward."

And those who have influence are not limited to any one department within a firm. "Everyone in the organization has impact on the customer experience," Phifer added. "You are all responsible for customer experience."

Phifer singled out Zappos, the online shoe store, as a company that has effectively differentiated itself by consistently delivering positive customer interactions.

"Zappos cares about [its] employees," Gene Alvarez, managing vice president at Gartner, agreed. "They've been able to create a distinguished customer experience because of this."

Jon Wolske, culture evangelist at Zappos, highlighted in the day's closing keynote some of the ways in which the company was able to create an internal culture that in turn extended its reach outward. The company realized that cultivating a happy workforce leads to more engaged employees who are less likely to burn out or quit. Likewise, it has made it its mission to exceed customer expectations by doing something "above and beyond what the customer expects," and adding a "wow" element. "Culture has been the number one driver of our business and we decided to put that first," Wolske said. When the company discovered that its packages were taking longer to arrive on the East Coast on account of its shipping facilities' location, they moved it from California to Kentucky to create a consistent experience nationwide. 

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