To App or Not to App?

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Should you create a mobile app?

That, it turns out, is a very complicated question.

You already know that your customer is in the midst of a mobile mind shift. Her smartphone will tell her what the weather will be, whether the bus is late, and the balance in her checking account. In a Pavlovian way, each of these actions trains her that whatever the question is, she can find the answer on her phone.

What can you offer her? How should mobile interaction fit into your customer experience?

Your job is to decrease the distance between what your customers want and what they get. How you do this will depend in part on what experiences you already offer. Picture a consultant's two-by-two diagram. Along the horizontal axis is the frequency of the customer experiences that your company offers. Don't count advertising—only count experience with your products or services. If your customer interacts with the company more than once a week—as with a bank or a mobile phone—the experience is frequent; otherwise, it's infrequent.

Along the vertical axis, look at the quality of the customer experience. You could measure this with Forrester's Customer Experience Index, by Net Promoter Score, or with ordinary customer satisfaction surveys.

Your mobile strategy depends, in part, on what quadrant your company is in. If you deliver a frequent, high-quality experience, your customers probably like you. But these customers are demanding. Since mobile is part of many of their other experiences, they'll expect you to be on their phones too.

Companies in this quadrant can extend their positive customer relationships with mobile. For example, Starbucks has saved its customers time and added convenience with its mobile payment application. These customers, who already like Starbucks, have mobile expectations; Starbucks delivers. The result is an increase in loyalty, crucially important for frequent relationships like this.

If you deliver an infrequent, high-quality experience, you can use mobile to give your customer more chances to interact. A great example here is baby products from Johnson & Johnson. People interact with the company infrequently, and there's no obvious role for a baby powder app. But J&J realized that its customer's real problem is not baby products, but rather the huge challenge of taking care of a baby. Sleep, of course, is the biggest challenge. So J&J created the popular BedTime app, which offers lots of advice on getting your baby to sleep, plus a nice little lullaby player with a repeat feature, for those moments when parents need a moment's peace. The BedTime app also illustrates the three-step process for getting your baby to sleep (bath, massage, off to bed), with some recommendations on Johnson's Baby products for each step.

What if your customer experience is frequent but poor? Fixing customer experience is a difficult, complex, and expensive process. Can mobile technology help?

Mobile solutions can't fix the customer experience, but they can provide some positive experiences to go along with the negative ones. Cable and telecom companies are definitely in this situation—they have some of the worst customer experience scores we've seen. But many—Verizon is one example—are creating apps that let you stream your video content on tablets or mobile phones. This pleases customers, delivering a positive experience that in some ways helps blunt the disappointing customer experience that many telecom customers often report.

What if you're delivering a low-frequency, low-quality experience? Frankly, mobile is not going to fix your problem. But you may want to partner with some of the innovators out there that are building apps that do deliver valuable experiences. Health insurers (another perennial set of laggards in the Customer Experience Index) might want to partner with any of the dozens of creative health-care apps, licensing them to improve their customers' health and potentially making up for some of the experience issues these companies have.

No matter what quadrant you're in, your customer has a problem and your company is, we hope, trying to solve it. Look to mobile technology to bring that customer a little closer to a solution, as her mobile device is, increasingly, where she will be looking for answers.

Josh Bernoff is senior vice president of idea development at Forrester Research. Julie Ask is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, serving e-business and channel strategy professionals.

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