Consistency of Experience and Customer Satisfaction

The March 2014 edition of McKinsey Quarterly makes the case that providing a consistent experience across all customer interactions is more important to satisfaction and loyalty than the performance in individual interactions. This runs counter to conventional market research wisdom, which says that not all customer experiences are equal in driving customer satisfaction and that the goal of research is to uncover the key drivers. While we are not ready to endorse McKinsey’s point of view just yet, it does deserve consideration.

McKinsey’s POV focuses on the feelings and perceptions customers take away from a range of interactions – not replicating the same interaction. A familiar way to conceptualize this idea is as meeting customer expectations across all interactions. Consistently meeting expectations builds trust in the brand, which leads to greater satisfaction and a higher likelihood to recommend.

The large number of customer interactions in many B2B sectors raises the potential for considerable inconsistency in meeting customer expectations. These interaction touch points include trade shows, websites, sales teams, technical sales reps, implementation teams, training teams, account managers, and customer support.  This makes providing a consistent experience that meets customer expectations difficult.

In our research B2B decision makers often tell us that they have significantly different experiences as a prospect than they do as a customer. It is not unusual for the interaction chain to unfold as follows: The marketing team ensures that the company’s collateral, trade show material and website present a customer focused organization. The sales team provides a lot of attention to prospects and assures them that the product will meet their needs and work as expected. In some cases senior executives get involved to show the prospect how important they are. To this point the prospect’s experiences are fairly consistent and they set up certain customer expectations.

However, once they become a customer things don’t always go as planned and the consistency of their experiences changes. When the implementation team gets into the details of the customer’s operations they sometimes realize that they cannot deliver what was promised. How this event is communicated and handled does not always meet the customer’s expectations. The executives that were once highly accessible don’t proactively stay involved with the customer. When something goes wrong the customer often finds that technical support has been outsourced to an offshore provider.

It is not that vendors aren’t trying. Most companies have some policies and processes in place to ensure a consistent experience for the customer. It is just that the execution is hard, especially because different functional areas are often evaluated and rewarded on conflicting metrics. The sales team for getting dollars through the door, the implementation time for staying within time and budget, and the customer support team for resolving customer issues quickly and cheaply. This approach can help maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of individual departments. Unfortunately it can also result in departments focusing too much on their own performance and forgetting about the most important thing – ensuring the customer’s experience meets their expectations.

A focus on the total customer experience must cascade down from the executive team. If they do not make it a priority, each functional team will maximize its own performance relative to how it is evaluated and rewarded. Even if the executive team wants to improve consistency in the customer experience it can be difficult to know where to start. One potential place is in existing customer satisfaction and NPS programs.

Using existing customer survey data most companies can create a consistency index or score that identifies the delta between satisfaction across different functional areas (product, customer service, etc.). In the simplest sense if a customer rates the product a 7 and customer service a 4 their consistency score is 3. These individual scores can be averaged to measure the company’s consistency of experience. The goal is to get as close to zero as possible. Some companies may want to look at subgroups to prioritize specific customers (e.g. platinum customers). This overall approach aligns with McKinsey’s recommendations for mapping the customer journey.

A  consistency focus provides a fresh perspective on identifying the areas that are most important for companies to address. In some cases low performing areas may have been previously identified as lacking a strong correlation with customer satisfaction and thus receive less attention and resources. However if their performance creates an inconsistency in the customer’s mind it might detract from overall satisfaction. Conversely, although it is always more important to focus on areas that need improvement, it may be worth looking at high performing outliers that create customer expectations that other functions cannot match – put another way, don’t make implicit promises that you cannot keep.

It may be possible to add or rephrase questions to ask directly about consistency. The simplest would be to ask, “How consistent have your experiences with XYZ been?” A more nuanced approach would be to ask if an individual customer interaction meets the expectations that were set by earlier experiences with the company.

The value and practicality of each of these ideas will vary by company and situation. At an overall level we think it is worth thinking about how to ensure you are consistently meeting your customers’ expectations. The goal is for customers to view you as a trusted reliable partner, not as a box of chocolate where they don’t know what they are going to get.