One of the objectives of an effective Customer Experience Management framework to is deliver a consistent and branded customer experience across channels and touch-points. And while some companies pay particular attention to the interaction at the touch-points they manage directly, many overlook the interaction their customers have with their business partners. Business partners can be involved at various points in the Customer Experience Lifecycle. Whether directly or indirectly, the interaction customers have with business partners is a direct reflection of the brand and is an integrant part of the customer experience.
The most obvious interactions that affect the customer happen through sales and support channels where a customer interacts directly with the company in person, over the phone or through the Internet.
In an effort to decrease costs, many companies outsource some of these core functions to third parties. However, outsourcing customer servicing functions does not relieve a brand of its accountability towards the customer experience.
These third parties are supposed to uphold the brand they are representing and be accountable for the activities they carry out. But it is not always the case. If left unmanaged, the customer experience through third parties can misrepresent or effectively damage the brand.
Sales, with marketing and word-of-mouth, is often one of the first touch-points with a brand customers encounter. This means it sets the brand promise and customer expectations for future interactions.
Although a core function of the company, sales activities are sometimes outsourced in whole or in part to third parties. Whether these third parties directly represent the brand, or are resellers who may also carry other brands, the interaction they have with the customer is part of the brand’s customer experience.
Commission-based or quota-dependent sales forces are generally more concerned with closing a sale than with the brand image and might resort to dubious tactics to close the sale. Overpromising, omitting crucial details or making otherwise misleading claims might get customers to buy but can destroy the customer experience even in the long term. For some reason, telecoms and Internet Service Providers seem to be particularly fond of this model. And it is no coincidence that they are also among the most disliked companies of any industry. Only their quasi-monopolistic position ensures they have a large enough customer base to turn a profit. Customers stay with them not because they are loyal, but most often because they are tied down with lengthy service contracts. Customer detention is not to be mistaken with customer retention.
Regardless of the quality of the customer experience thereafter, customers acquired through deception will likely never repeat their business, much less become advocates, unless substantial, honest and immediate efforts are made to repair the damage done by sales.
Even obvious independent resellers can affect the brand, as they can set customer expectations towards the product or service. The more a reseller overpromises, the greater the customer’s disappointment with the brand. If a third-party exaggerates the benefits of a product or service, the customer will not only blame the reseller, but will be disappointed with the brand she purchased and will consider other brands that have the desired value.
Interaction with the third party doesn’t even have to finish in a sale for someone to make an opinion of the brand. Only the approach of the sales force itself can say a lot about a company. For example, hiring a third party to make outbound sales calls in an aggressive or intrusive manner can create discontent with the brand. For some time, I received numerous unsolicited calls per week by people trying to sell me some large bank’s financial products. It doesn’t matter it was a third party; this ensures I will never be that bank’s customer, knowing it allows such a practice to be associated with its brand.
Post-sales functions have the onus of maintaining a consistency in customer experience even more so than other channels. Previous interactions with the brand prior to purchase have created expectations toward the brand in terms of customer experience, and customers will expect the same quality of interaction during the post-purchase experience in respect to support, problem resolution, warranties, etc.
If the customer experience was good, customers will expect the same quality for support. If the previous interactions were negative, an excellent post-purchase customer experience is opportunity to recover the relationship.
Post-sales functions also have the highest impact on the customer experience because they happen after customers have invested in the product or service. This is when customers expect and demand the most. They trust that the organization should stand behind their product or service and remain committed to meeting their needs. And because they paid, they take it personally and are highly emotional about it. Not delivering on post-purchase customers expectations can result in a customer experience disaster and can kill chances of repeat business, not to mention generating negative word-of-mouth.
In spite of the importance of post-purchase experience and the high impact on the brand, post-sales services such as call centers, service centers, repairs and shipping are frequently outsourced. If a consistent and branded post-purchase customer experience is rare even when internal, it is even more so when it is outsourced.
Nondescript service centers, poor customer service, service delays, lack of information, etc., are commonplace. How many times have you tried to get service for a product you bought from a recognized brand only to end up in an unappealing out-of-the-way office waiting for your number to be called? Apple for example provides an excellent customer experience through its branded Apple Stores. However many of its post-sales services are outsourced to “Authorized Service Providers”. And the experience with those third parties is often disappointingly different than what you’ve come to expect through direct Apple channels.
Whether customers know the service is handled by a third-party or not doesn’t matter to them. In the end, the experience reflects your brand.
Outsourcing post-sales services can mean operational savings, but requires more than double the effort in customer experience management. To ensure a consistent and branded post-purchase customer experience, companies have to closely monitor and manage the business partners.
Call Centers are probably the most commonly outsourced support function by large organizations. Although call center outsourcing generally works fairly well, there are certainly enhancement opportunities in further branding the customer experience. At a minimum, customers expect rapid and personalized answers and first-call problem resolution. Key to meeting customer expectations is ensuring the third-party call center staff have all the information they need to provide a personalized service, accurate answers and most importantly empowering them to make decisions.
Offshore call center outsourcing has been the subject of much debate. And while it can represent cost-savings, it has potential negative effects on the brand. Some studies suggest that customers who are under the impression or know that they are talking to an offshore call center might change their buying behavior with the company regardless of their satisfaction with the call center experience. Understanding they are talking to an offshore call center might also predispose some customers to be dissatisfied with the service received.
Shipping is almost always outsourced. The customer orders from a company, and the product is delivered by an express shipping service. In cases of delivery issues, whether the product is late, arrives damaged or doesn’t arrive at all, some companies will dismiss the responsibility and will refer the customer to the shipping company for resolution. Most customers won’t put the blame on the shipper, but on the brand from which they bought the product, because it is part of that brand’s shipping experience. As far as customers are concerned, it should be up to the brand to track the shipping and resolve the issues. Especially in the consumer goods industries, companies like Amazon, Zappos and others have helped create an expectation that logistics are accurate and timely and that they are the responsibility of the merchant.
Extended Fulfillment Partners
Some business partners are clearly third parties outside of your sales cycle but play a fulfillment role part of the broader Customer Experience Lifecycle and interact with your customers directly. This might be for example a partner in a joint promotion who is meant to accept a voucher or give your customers a discount. Or it might be a collection center where your customers go to pick up a premium.
Since they are part of the fulfillment of a value promised by the brand from which customer purchased, the interaction with these partners will affect the brand. For example, companies can thank their customers with a voucher for a restaurant, and the restaurant makes it difficult to claim. Customers will attribute the bad experience to the originating company since the vouchers are part of its value promise. Sending customers to collect a premium in a decrepit distribution center is not only off-brand but also can make customers feel cheap depending on the customer segment and the premium handed out. The experience with these third parties is part of the experience with your brand.
If the customer experience with these third parties cannot be entirely branded and consistent across your other channels, it should nonetheless be positive and as seamless as possible.
Partners on Your Premises
Finally there are third parties who do not provide any service to your customers, but may interact with them while providing a service to your company on your premises. For example: a raucous bunch of workers in your lobby. Whether customers believe they are your employees or not, interaction with them is part of the customer experience with your brand.
I was at Starbucks when the security system company was testing the alarm system in the middle of the day while customers were there relaxing over a coffee. No apologies from the security company for the earsplitting inconvenience. But more importantly: no apologies from Starbucks. The bad experience wasn’t with the security company; it was part of my “Starbucks Experience”.
Actually anything happening on your company premises affects the perception of your brand by association, particularly if the memory of the event is emotionally charged. For example: the place where lovers first met, or where something traumatic was experienced. A customer witnessing someone throwing up vigorously in a restaurant will have that image every time he or she thinks of that restaurant regardless it had nothing to do with the quality of the food.
Now some things are difficult to control. But business partners’ conduct while on your premises can and should be managed.
Managing the Third Party Experience
Business partners are important touch-points part of your customer experience. Whether directly part of the sales and support cycle or the part of the broader Customer Experience Lifecycle, interaction with them affects your customers’ perception of your brand.
The customer experience with business partners who assume your brand identity and directly service your customers should be consistent with that of other channels. Even when they are clearly identified as a third party only providing a logistics function such as shipping, the integration of the business partners in the process should be as seamless as possible to the customers.
Some third parties may not have a financial or business interest in upholding your brand image but should be given guidelines on what is expected of them while interacting with your customers and representing your brand. They should be held to the same quality requirements, policies and standards that you require from your own employees. If call centers have a code of conduct when representing your brand, there is no reason why other partners who represent your brand through different channels shouldn’t also have one. And if a partner does not consistently deliver the brand promise, the company should find another one who will.
Companies should take responsibility for the interaction with business partners and do what is necessary to make it right for the customer. As far as the customer experience is concerned they are your partners, so they are your responsibility.
Ensuring the interaction with your business partners is consistent with your brand requires constant management and monitoring. Third parties should be included in the customer experience management framework just as any other internal channel. Data and feedback on the customer interaction should be gathered on an ongoing basis with different methods and actions taken to maintain high standards in the customer experience.
David Jacques is Founder and Principal Consultant of Customer input Ltd and a pioneer in the field of Customer Experience Management. He has created the first Framework that brings together cohesively every aspect of Customer Experience Management. He is also passionate about having an in-depth understanding customer values to create emotionally-engaging customer experiences not only at individual interactions but also seamlessly between them.