Using Story to Weave Emotionally Engaging Customer Experiences

At the movies (from the movie Amélie)

Customer experience is the result of any direct or indirect interaction with an organization as perceived by the customer. So arguably the most important aspect of customer experience management is designing these interactions. While organizations are beginning to understand the importance of creating positive and consistent customer experiences across channels, interactions are often managed by departments individually, which results in incoherent overall customer experiences. Using the power of storytelling, organizations can create not only more seamless cross-departmental interactions, but create more emotionally engaging customer experiences.

An interaction is when a customer encounters any direct or indirect organization touch-point. An interaction also refers to the sum of individual interactions during one dealing, or transaction, with an organization. Buying a product in a store or online for example is a process that involves interactions with multiple touch-points; marketing communications, product displays, sales staff, registration or sales forms, delivery, etc.

Many of these individual interactions are managed by different departments, who see them as a closed loop, as a whole. Billing for example is often only concerned with the payment process; it doesn’t look at interactions customers had with the organization before or that will come after. Marketing is concerned mainly with providing a value proposition, and is rarely involved in its fulfillment. And this clear separation of roles and responsibilities is not only limited to an entire department’s activities, but can even be broken down to individual staff who provide part of a process.

From the organization’s perspective, this makes total sense. Different departments have clear roles, responsibilities and accountability and they want to keep those clearly separate.

But from the customer’s perspective, it’s a very different story. Quite literally.

Customers approach organizations with an end goal in mind. They want to open a bank account, get a book or a car, get a product repaired, get a medical check-up. They want to reach that end goal with as little effort as possible.

And normally they prefer dealing with one organization that can do everything, because it’s easier. While reaching these end goals involves interactions with touch-points managed by different departments, customers do not look at each individual interaction as an end in itself. They see the bigger picture. From the customer’s perspective, the individual interactions are simply part of the overarching “story” or narrative. And this story should be seamless.

However instead of feeling like they are dealing with one organization, customers often feel like they are dealing with as many different departments as there are steps in the process. What should be to them one single coherent story often feels like a series of completely disconnected anecdotes. Customers often feel they are processed, filed, stamped, approved and shipped between different departments like a product in the dehumanizing corporate customer management production line. Nothing ties the interactions together into one cohesive and coherent customer experience. For example the language, tone and manner used in the marketing collateral might differ greatly from that of the sales staff and that of the billing. Or customers have to re-explain their situation multiple times to different people within the same organization. Sometimes they are even passed to a different company entirely during fulfillment of the original organizations’ product or service.

These disconnected and convoluted interactions are the source of much frustration and negatively impact the customer experience. And the more disconnects there are, the greater the dissatisfaction. Not just because we perceive them as waste of our time and effort. There are deeper, subtler reasons behind this. Subconsciously, they don’t match the way we think.

Our minds like to establish coherence by structuring things. One way we do this is by organizing things into narratives, or stories. Narratives are how we organize our personal experiences. They also play an important role in our sense of personal identity and in the creation and organization of memories. This is also why we generally prefer stories with narrative continuity, because they make sense. Good stories have a narrative flow, a coherent sequence of events in which the anecdotes that make part of the story naturally come together to make a whole (although some stories intentionally break the narrative flow for some effect).

Disconnected interactions with organizations force us make sense of the entire experience ourselves. And it is very difficult to make any sense of these interactions when they are organized from an internal organizational structure perspective. In clinical psychology, broken narratives of the self are actually the indicator, sometimes the cause, of psychopathological processes. So it is little wonder why these disconnected interactions with companies can cause much distress. Next time you hear someone say about an organization that dealing with it “drives me crazy”, you’ll understand there might be more truth to it than on the surface.

While it is important to create a positive customer experience through every touch-point individually, the greatest customer experience improvement opportunity is in weaving the individual touch-points, or steps in a process, into linear, cohesive and seamless interactions.

For large organizations however this can prove a challenge. It requires collaboration between departments who are used to work in organizational silos, and requires redesigning processes from an outside perspective. It does not mean necessarily breaking up departments and creating new interaction-oriented or narrative-oriented organizational structures. Each department can still have their separate roles, responsibilities and accountability internally, as long as these are not visible to customers.

At the minimum, organizations can make interactions more seamless by limiting the number of channels customers have to go through for one transaction. As a simple example, in a shop, having the same staff greet the customer, explain promotions, provide advice and take the payment. These activities involve multiple departments behind the scenes, but the customer doesn’t have to know or see that, nor does she care.

Sometimes interactions must necessarily involve disconnects such as different physical locations or downtime. In these cases the principles of narratives or storytelling can be used to give an element of flow to the entire experience. For example when customers get the delivery or installation of a product, or arrive at an appointment, the story picks up where it left off, without having to repeat all that has been said before.

But the true power of narratives is in engaging customers emotionally in the customer experience. By weaving interactions not only in stories, but in good stories, customers can become much more involved.

People are moved more by emotion than by logic. And while seamless interactions can make sense, they become much more powerful if they are immersive. As explained in an article about Peter Gruber’s book Tell To Win, stories change people. The more absorbed in a story people are, the more their perceptions change. People who are highly absorbed in a story tend to overlook inaccuracies or missteps. This means when interactions not only make a story, but make a good one, customers have a better perception of the customer experience and are less likely to be bothered by potential hiccups.

The stories we like are those with a good plot. These often have elements of intrigue and surprise, challenges and resolutions. By using elements of good storytelling organizations can change average interactions into compelling stories. For example by injecting elements of story in a shopping experience where the customer is first intrigued and progressively unravels facts leading to the pay-off.

Most importantly, good stories have thematic questions that are relevant to the readers, listeners, and viewers or (as in this case) customers. And to be more relevant to customers and truly connect emotionally, interactions have to fit into the customers’ broader life stories. What is the back-story? What are their personal challenges? This requires organizations to start viewing the customer experience from a much wider perspective than the customer lifecycle and start understanding customers on a much deeper level.

Just as writing good stories, changing average interactions into emotionally-engaging customer experiences is an art. In order to so, companies have to stop seeing themselves as providers of products or services, but as storytellers. And just like best stories, the best interactions will be long remembered and shared.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

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.

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